GREENFIELD — The legislature’s attempt to lessen the strain of low-level felons on county jails would barely make a dent at Hancock County’s overcrowded jail, the county sheriff says.

Three bills moving through this year’s Indiana General Assembly session — Senate Bill 319, House Bill 1078 and House Bill 1065 — were written with the state’s overcrowded county jails in mind. The Indiana Sheriffs' Association has previously estimated that 96 percent of jail cells statewide are full. Forty to 45 counties are looking at building new jails or renovating existing facilities, the association has said.

Inmates sentenced with Level 6 felonies — low-level charges such as theft, drug possession and neglect of a dependent — serve that time at county jails rather than going to Indiana Department of Correction facilities. The state legislature voted in 2015 to make the change, saying at the time it would reduce recidivism.

Hancock County’s inmate population has risen significantly since, reaching a record 259 last December.

H.B. 1078, which has already passed the House and Senate, says county judges can send convicted Level 6 felons to state prisons if the person is a violent offender or has two prior unrelated felony convictions. Similarly, S.B. 319 allows judges to send inmates to the DOC if the person’s probation is revoked due to a new charge. The bill, which passed the Senate, hasn’t yet been heard in committee in the House.

H.B. 1065 would allow sheriffs to transfer offenders to a regional holding center operated by the DOC if the county’s jail is overcrowded. It also tasks the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute to identify federal, state or local grants that can be spent on funding and operating future regional facilities.

Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said although he doesn’t know how many local offenders the bills would impact, it could reduce the number of sentenced Level 6 inmates the county outsources to two other Indiana counties — currently 57 men and women — by about quarter or by half.

“I don’t think it’s a significant (number), but it definitely will help us,” he said.

On Tuesday, the 157-bed Hancock County Jail housed 248 inmates, including at least 71 charged with Level 6 felonies. Burkhart said an additional 65 offenders are housed in other Indiana counties.

The bills still won’t alleviate the county’s issue with inmate overcrowding or stop the county’s plan to build a new jail, Burkhart said. The current jail should house 125 inmates to run at the recommended capacity, he said. A proposed new 440-bed county jail could cost up to $43 million and open as early as late 2020 or early 2021, according to county documents with RQAW, the consultant designing the jail.

“If you do not have a place to hold people incarcerated when they commit crimes, your quality of life is going to go down,” Burkhart said. “You’ve got to have a place to keep people. So it just depends how you want to live here in Hancock County.”

Burkhart said the bills are “Band-Aid” fixes to the state’s overcrowding problem and not the “cure-all”

“You’re not planning for the future,” Burkhart said. “We’re already behind, being overcrowded, and so you’re able to get a few out of here, but you’re still not planning for 10 to 20 to 30 years if you’re basing it off a bill that’s enacted today.”

Current state law already allows judges to sentence a Level 6 felon to the DOC, said Keith Oliver, jail commander. The offender needs to have two or more felony convictions. Hancock County judges tried to sentence two people to the DOC, Oliver said, but the state didn’t want to house them and sent the Level 6 felons back to the county.

State Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, said he expects the bills about jail overcrowding to be combined into one piece of legislation at the end of the session later this month. The bills won’t solve the state’s criminal justice issues, Crider said, but it will give counties options on how to handle Level 6 inmates.

“It’s a challenging discussion, and it’s a lot about money,” Crider said. “The sheriffs are getting stuck with these folks and having to feed them and house them.”

Burkhart said he and Hancock County’s judges, the prosecutor’s office and community corrections officials recently met to discuss the county’s high incarceration rates. According to the DOC, Hancock County ranked No. 3 in the state for Level 6 felons, behind only Marion and Vanderburgh counties. On April 1, 134 inmates were either serving time with Level 6 felonies or awaiting trial in Hancock County.

Some of those offenders have violated probation three or four times, which causes judges to send them back to jail, Burkhart said. Other common Level 6 offenses include failure to return to lawful detention — people who don’t return to community corrections — as well as drug possession, battery and possession of a syringe.

Burkhart expects the jail’s population to keep increasing as the summer approaches.

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