Eaton: County Council must increase Prosecutor’s Office staff and develop a long-term plan to avoid public safety crisis

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Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton

The Prosecutor’s Office has the greatest impact on local public safety of any agency. If search warrants and criminal cases are not filed, then criminal investigations cannot proceed, and defendants are not held accountable for their conduct. This office sets the tone for how the law is enforced in this community and how the local justice system functions.

I am proud to say that in recent years, Hancock County has been one of the safest places to live in the state, but the reality is that the Prosecutor’s Office is teetering on the edge of collapse. Inadequate staffing levels, skyrocketing overtime, and a below-average pay rate in the Prosecutor’s Office have created a perfect storm that has been made worse by the County Council’s continued refusal to address the situation. Without the Council’s immediate support, we could no longer be a safe community, especially considering the rapidly growing population.

Written and verbal requests to meet and discuss these issues to develop a long-term plan have been repeatedly ignored. Worse still, after approving positions for a new deputy prosecutor and paralegal in July for the 2024 budget cycle, the council reversed its decision in August.

It is absolutely vital that this situation be addressed – now, not later. Prosecutors’ offices statewide are struggling, leading the Indiana Prosecuting Attorney Council (IPAC) to study the situation. Locally,

  • Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office staff levels fall 25%-50% below IPAC’s recommendations. IPAC recommends a minimum of 12 full-time attorneys to adequately staff the office, an increase of four from current staffing levels. In turn, that would mean an increase in additional support staff to include at least four paralegals, one victim advocate and one investigator, according to IPAC’s recent findings.
  • Proof of inadequate staffing levels are reflected in the huge increase in overtime, which more than doubled in a year’s time from 1,231 hours in 2021 to 2,222 hours in 2022 and continues to climb in 2023. This rate of mandatory overtime is not sustainable. Prosecutor’s Office employees are exhausted.
  • Due to inadequate staffing levels the office cannot abide by American Bar Association standards regarding appropriate workload, diligence, and promptness.
  • Current pay rates for deputy prosecutors and support staff are between 8%-10% below wages in Prosecutor’s Offices in similar communities statewide.

A local task force should be immediately appointed to develop a plan to sustain the Prosecutor’s Office into the future.

It is imperative by 2026 that the County Council fund four new deputy prosecutors, four additional paralegals, an additional victim advocate, another investigator, and an additional administrative assistant.

I am asking the council to reinstate their commitment to fund an additional deputy prosecutor and paralegal for 2024 along with pay increases of 10% for administrative staff and 8% for deputy prosecutors as the office’s current pay levels are from 8% to 10% below the average of similar communities. The current budget did allocate additional funding to make the wages more competitive, but they will still fall short of the salary structure in similar communities.

The job of the County Council is to appropriately fund county government. The most important obligation of local government is public safety. The failure of the Council to appropriately fund the Prosecutor’s Office places the safety and well-being of our community and its people in peril.

Indiana is set to receive approximately $900 million from various state-level opioid related settlements, of which Hancock County is set to receive approximately $2.78 million over the next 16 years. The purpose of this money is to help communities respond to the ongoing opioid addiction and related public safety crisis. This ongoing national crisis has had a massive impact on public safety, yet the County Council has decided that they will not use any of these funds to address the critical situation at the Prosecutor’s Office.

Prosecutor Brent Eaton calls on the County Council and Board of Commissioners to revise the current allocation of the opioid settlement funds, and to utilize at least a portion of this money to prevent the collapse of the Prosecutor’s Office.

Hancock County is one of the state’s most rapidly growing communities and borders Marion County, which has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the nation. Failure to appropriately fund the Prosecutor’s Office and develop a long-term staffing plan will be devastating to the public safety of this community.

It is time for the County Council to decide if they will support law enforcement and public safety by funding the Prosecutor’s Office at an appropriate level, or if they are going to join communities that have endorsed “Defund the Law Enforcement” policies that have resulted in record-setting murder rates.

Brent Eaton has served as the Hancock County Prosecutor since 2015.