A bill in the state legislature that would allow Howard County to appoint a magistrate has passed the House and been referred to the Indiana Senate.

Local officials have said a magistrate could reduce the jail’s population and speed up the process of case hearings and enrollment in the county’s problem-solving courts.

Howard County, according to the most recent available weighted caseload measurements, is the 10th-most heavily stressed court system in Indiana. A magistrate is expected to ease that pressure. 

House representatives voted unanimously Tuesday to pass the bill, which would allow the county’s five judges to jointly appoint a magistrate, on third reading. It was referred to the Senate Wednesday.

The bill is authored by Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, and co-authored by Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo. Its Senate sponsors are Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, and Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport.

A media release distributed by the Indiana House Republicans said a magistrate “would jointly serve the county circuit and superior courts, preside over minor civil and criminal cases, and conduct preliminary hearings without the presence of a judge.”

“A magistrate would be able to expedite the high volume of cases making their way through the local courts,” added Karickhoff. “By allowing the magistrate to conduct assessments and offer alternatives to incarcerations for those arrested while their case is being processed, officials can reduce the county jail population.”

If passed, the bill would allow Howard County to become the 32nd Indiana county with at least one magistrate.   

Once appointed, the magistrate would continue in office until removed by the county’s judges.

“Local officials support appointing a magistrate to ease the courts’ growing caseloads,” said VanNatter. “After learning of Howard County’s need for a magistrate, providing courts the flexibility to appoint this position could make our local judicial system more efficient.”

The magistrate’s salary would be paid by the state, while the county would cover “ancillary costs” like a possible part-time clerk or office supplies, said Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman on Wednesday. A currently unused courtroom in the jail would likely become the magistrate’s regular home.

Wyman is one of numerous county officials who have lobbied state representatives and senators for a magistrate.

During a trip to the Statehouse last fall, he told the Committee on Courts and the Judiciary, comprised of state Senate and House members, about the county’s need. He was joined by Prosecutor Mark McCann and Superior Court 3 Judge Doug Tate.

“Helping us reduce our jail population is a critical component of this,” Wyman told committee members. 

“We’ve been very successful in Howard County in putting together many programs to assist people that are in drug addiction, and it would be our hope that the magistrate, by working with folks at the bond hearing, would be able to get people into these programs faster and start receiving the treatment they need and getting down the road to recidivism.”

Howard County’s jail population on Wednesday was 389, according to jail commander Robin Byers. That is a drop from previously dire numbers that reached the upper-400s but is still above the jail’s fixed-bed capacity of 364.

“We try to do a good job of not having individuals in our jail simply because they can’t post bond, and I think we could do an even better job if we had a judicial officer who was available five days a week to address those issues,” said Tate.

McCann echoed those comments.

“What we’re needing is a magistrate that can assess them immediately so this is not taking two weeks, 30 days – but we’re getting this person in front of a magistrate [in a day], where they can be assessed, we can have an additional hearing or hearings and assess their bond, assess their need for treatment and have a prosecutor, a public defender, magistrate and program services available to get them out of our jail,” he said.

“We do have a situation where we need to get individuals into treatment facilities, not incarcerated – unless they need to be incarcerated – and get them services versus them sitting there for what we call minor offenses or revocations of probation … when they could be being treated and back into society and addressing the problems that got them there in the first place.”

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