GREENFIELD — When a new Hancock County Jail opens its doors in 2021, addiction recovery will be a top priority.

As more people who have mental illnesses and drug addictions are incarcerated, the amount of services that jails need to provide for inmates grows. There aren’t many community- or state-based rehabilitation centers within reach for those who need help, so that puts pressure on county jails.

And as an income tax increase takes effect on Tuesday to help pay for the new jail, Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart says the 440-bed facility will allow for bigger and better recovery programs. The county is doing what it can in the meantime to help people with addictions, but it’s difficult for those inmates and the programs to meet their full potential, he said.

“I think there are endless opportunities," Burkhart said. "We fully don’t understand what those are yet, but we’re willing to look at those and see if we can make those things work.”

Construction on an access road leading to the $38 million jail began a few weeks ago, and county residents will soon start paying for it.

The county raised its income tax rate — which goes into effect on Tuesday — from 1.74% to 1.94% to fund the jail’s construction and staffing. That pushes Hancock County’s income tax ranking from 49th highest to 37th among 92 counties.

The tax hike — which will be deducted from paychecks — means a person earning $30,000 a year will pay an additional $60 a year, and someone earning $50,000 would pay an additional $100. The county will likely start receiving the income tax revenue in January.

Hancock County isn’t alone in raising income taxes to build jails. At least 14 counties, including Johnson, Hendricks and Sullivan, raised income taxes this year to build or expand their jails, according to figures from the Indiana Department of Revenue and local news reports in each of those counties.

The Indiana General Assembly in 2018 passed House Enrolled Act 1236, which allows counties to raise their income tax rate by no more than 0.2 percentage points to pay for correctional facilities and rehabilitation facilities. Each county has raised taxes to build jails; none have done so for county-run rehab centers.

A change to criminal code a few years ago diverted Level 6 felons to county jails instead of to state prisons, which over time has resulted in many overcrowded jails. According to Indiana Sheriff’s Association estimates earlier this year, close to 40 counties are looking to expand or build bigger jails.

Lawmakers in 2015 said by keeping low-level offenders at county jails, the state would fund more community corrections programs. They thought the change would allow counties to focus more on alternatives to incarceration, according to a 2015 article in The Indianapolis Star.

Earlier this month, Burkhart went to a summer Senate session meeting regarding the ramifications of House Bill 1006, the overhaul in the criminal code. He said some lawmakers were upset so many counties were needing to build new jails. They said that wasn’t the intent of H.B. 1006.

Burkhart said if lawmakers want Level 6 felons to participate in rehabilitation outside of the confines of a jail, then the state needs to "step up" and pay for community-based facilities. Burkhart said counties shouldn’t have to pay for rehabilitation centers at the same time county jail populations balloon. He thinks the state should build regional centers for drug addiction recovery and mental health services.

But until, and if, any changes are made at the state level, it’s up to counties to provide those programs.

Half of the 116,000 square-foot Hancock County Jail, which will be built on 20 acres of county-owned farmland north of U.S. 40 between County Roads 400E and 500E, is designed as dormitory-style housing with bunk beds in 10 blocks. Some of the areas will be designated as recovery blocks, where inmates who want to battle their addiction can be with "like-minded" people, Burkhart said.

Burkhart said he’s also had conversations with Hancock Health officials about providing mental health services in the new jail. Some inmates suffer from mental illness, drug addiction, or both.

Certified addictions specialists from the Hancock County Probation Department come to the current jail three times a week — and they might expand that to four times a week and add extra sessions — to conduct the county’s jail intervention program, also called JIP. Any inmate in the jail can voluntarily sign up for the program, which has been in place since 2017. Inmates can also receive medical treatment, specifically the opioid blocker Vivitrol, to help reduce drug cravings, Burkhart said.

According to the probation department, 125 men and 142 women participated in JIP in 2018; men had a 14% recidivism rate — meaning the amount of people who re-offended — and women had an 8% rate. So far in 2019, 83 women and 116 men have participated in the program.

“If you help a few people, or even one person, it’s well worth it, I believe," Burkhart said.

Keith Oliver, jail commander, said inmates also attend Alcoholics Anonymous; high school equivalency classes; and church. He’s also trying to start a Narcotics Anonymous program in the jail.

Overcrowding at the 157-bed downtown jail has made it difficult to have a block designated for recovery. In the new jail, those areas will have 12 to 16 inmates instead of about 25 people.

“In a true program, you’ll have people in there who are like-minded and want to change," Oliver said. "You won’t have all these negative influences coming in with brand new drug charges and talking about how they need to get high again, and these people wanting to get clean. It really creates a battle within the blocks.”

Last year, the county had planned on renovating the downtown jail’s indoor recreation area into a recovery block big enough to house up to 16 men who were part of the drug treatment program. But the Indiana Department of Correction nixed the plan because the state doesn’t allow improvements inside the jail unless a plan is in place to bring the rest of the building up to code.

A DOC official told county officials last summer that once the county adopts the design and a formal plan on how to pay for a new jail, the state agency would allow for the recovery block to be built. Burkhart said a state jail inspector recently told him the county can now move forward on the plan if they wish.

Last year’s estimates put the recovery block project at about $100,000, Burkhart said. If the county brings back about 15 inmates it currently pays to house in other counties, he said they may be able to receive about $200,000 over the course of a year or so. The state pays counties a daily rate to house Level 6 felons, which the DOC bases of a formula. Oliver said he plans to put women in the recovery area, if the county approves it, since there’s a bigger need to add a third female block.

Burkhart said he plans to propose the idea to the Hancock County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
© 2020 Daily Reporter