Hendricks County Jail: Capacity 252; distance from courthouse, 1.5 miles
Hendricks County Jail: Capacity 252; distance from courthouse, 1.5 miles
GREENFIELD — It’s not uncommon for sheriff’s departments in central Indiana to operate county jails some distance from their courthouse squares and key offices and courts.

Hancock County is testing that concept as it weighs plans for a new jail. It hasn’t been greeted enthusiastically, and the idea to build a jail on county-owned land east of the county seat seems to be many officials’ second choice. But some sheriffs in central Indiana have long been wary of what officials here have only recently — and painfully — discovered: keeping a jail in a landlocked downtown area could hamper the ability to expand.

Also, many towns are also revitalizing their city centers, updating building facades and luring in shops and eateries. That can be at odds with the imposing structure of a county jail, they say.

Among the seven metro-area counties adjacent to Marion County, only Hancock and Shelby counties have jails downtown. Hamilton, Johnson, Boone, Hendricks and Morgan counties each have a jail and sheriff’s department about 1 1/2 miles away from courts and other county offices downtown.

Hancock County could join those five counties if officials move forward on building a 440-bed jail outside Greenfield on county-owned land along U.S. 40 between County Roads 400E and 500E. The two-pod jail could open as early as summer 2021 and cost about $35 million using funds from a local income tax hike. County boards will decide more on the project in the weeks to come.

But that proposal doesn’t include building a sheriff’s office next to the jail. Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said the overcrowded 157-bed jail will operate as it has for years until a new jail is built. Once that happens, the sheriff’s office likely will stay downtown, about 2-1/2 miles from the new jail, unless the county chooses to fund another building project to move the department to the county farm.

“I’m not super excited about having to have two campuses,” Burkhart said, “but I am excited that at least they’re trying to move forward… and at least have a little bit of momentum.”

The tentative decision to build a jail on the county farm resulted from months of contentious discussions between the Hancock County Commissioners and the Hancock County Council. The county previously had a plan in place to build a jail downtown and update multiple offices. That fell through when voters last May turned down a $55 million referendum that would’ve used property taxes to fund a downtown jail project.

As Hancock County officials grapple with their next steps on the jail, a few of their neighbors to the west have found ways to efficiently run two criminal justice campuses for nearly half a century.

Hendricks County and its seat of Danville, west of Indianapolis, have had a jail outside since the 1970s, said Sheriff Brett Clark. The jail, which is designed to house 252 inmates, expanded in 1989, Clark said. It’s located about 1-1/2 miles from the square in downtown Danville.

Clark has never known any other location for the jail than outside of the city square.

“If you build a downtown location and then 30 or 40 years down the road you need to expand, and you’re landlocked, it sort of limits your possibilities,” Clark said.

The prosecutor’s office, part of the probation department and courts system of Hendricks County, which has a population of 163,685, still operates in downtown Danville. The jail and sheriff’s office is next to the county’s work release center, part of probation, the county highway department and animal control, he said.

About six officers are assigned to inmate transport to the courthouse as needed, Clark said. Offenders have initial hearings via video court as well as other daily hearings and conferences.

“For us it’s all relatively close and it seems to work fairly good,” Clark added.

Johnson County, population 153,897, south of Indianapolis, built a jail outside of its landlocked county seat, Franklin, in the 1970s. Sheriff Duane Burgess said it would’ve “cost a fortune” to keep expanding a downtown jail in a city with limited space. He said splitting the jail from the courts hasn’t been inefficient.

“We’ve got it down to a specific science, and we’re able to do that with very little problems,” Burgess said about transporting inmates to court dates at the courthouse downtown. “It’s goes well. It’s just adapting to change.”

Similarly to Hendricks County, the Johnson County prosecutor’s office and probation department remain downtown. Community corrections, a juvenile detention center and the highway department are located next to the jail, about 1-1/2 miles from downtown. The jail is also near a mobile home park and hospital.

Burgess said the jail uses video conferences for inmates who have cases in the Greenwood City Court, located about 10 miles north.

The fastest-growing county in Indiana, Hamilton County, also built a jail separate from downtown Noblesville, the county seat, in the 1970s. The two-building jail has a capacity to house 412 offenders.

Lt. Josh Carey, the county’s jail commander, said he sees both pros and cons with having a split criminal justice campus. Carey said it’s more difficult for attorneys to visit clients in the jail since it’s 1-1/2 miles away from the courts, and the daily transport back and forth of inmates takes additional time.

But if there’s a major disturbance at the jail, Carey said, it won’t disrupt other county offices like it would if the jail and county departments shared a building or downtown campus. Hamilton County also has a video court for initial hearings and provides a secure video feed for inmates and attorneys.

“I don’t know if there’s any real solid benefit to having it or not having it,” Carey added.

Hamilton County, like Johnson County, houses its prosecutor’s office and probation department downtown, and community corrections and juvenile detention center on the jail’s campus. To the north of the county jail is Noblesville High School, Noblesville East Middle School and an apartment complex.

Hendricks, Johnson and Hamilton county officials are each either looking at expanding their jails or have plans in place to do so. Carey said a new jail pod is expected to open in March with 125 additional beds. Hamilton County typically houses between 300 and 330 inmates in its current facility, he said.

Burgess said Johnson County is aiming to add 250 extra beds in a facility expansion. With a current capacity of 322, the jail has housed as many as 450 inmates, he added.

Hendricks County also hopes to grow on the east side of its 252-bed jail, Clark said.

“Sometimes we’ll push 300, but the problem you run into with that is it’s not safe for inmates and it’s not safe for staff,” he said. “You can do it for a short time, but it’s like anything else, if you have overcrowded school buildings or workplace, it’s just not efficient.”

The Indiana Sheriffs' Association estimates 40 to 45 counties are looking to expand their jails. Clark said it’s difficult to figure out how to decrease a jail’s population without compromising safety.

“It’s a constant challenge, and it’s sort of a necessary thing in the community,” Clark said, “(but) nobody wants to have to deal with it, so it’s very easy to conveniently just continue it and continue it or kind of push it down the road.”

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