A bill that would allow Howard County to bolster its court system with a magistrate passed the state Senate Monday and is headed to the desk of Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The legislation was approved unanimously in the Senate, which followed its unanimous passage in the House in mid-February. It is now eligible to be signed by Holcomb.

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, in the Indiana Senate, is authored by Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, and co-authored by Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo. 

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.

The bill would allow the county’s five sitting judges to appoint a magistrate. If passed, Howard County would 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. Magistrates are hired to preside over minor civil and criminal cases and conduct preliminary hearings, according to a media release from the Indiana House Republicans.

“There is a high volume of cases currently making their way through the local courts but are being held up due to limited manpower,” said Karickhoff. “A magistrate would be able to assist with many of these cases, expedite them through the judicial process, free up valuable resources and help reduce the county jail population.” 

VanNatter added: “Howard County officials expressed a need for a magistrate to help ease the court’s growing caseloads, speed up the time needed to process claims and conduct regular business for low-risk cases. Establishing a magistrate could make a great difference in the efficiency of our local judicial system.”

The magistrate’s salary would be paid by the state, while the county would cover ancillary costs, such as a possible part-time clerk or office supplies.

A currently unused courtroom in the jail would likely become the magistrate’s regular home.

“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," said Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann in previous comments. "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.

“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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