HANCOCK COUNTY — A woman with five children, accused of theft, ended up in the Hancock County jail. She didn’t have a prior record, was young and admitted she made a mistake.
The defendant didn’t have the money to post a $500 bond, but instead of sitting in jail waiting to deal with the charge, she has been released through the new Hancock County Pretrial Release Program.
The program started at the first of year and allows low-risk defendants who qualify through a screening process to be released from jail while their criminal case is pending instead of spending months in jail or posting money for bond.
The Hancock County Jail this week is housing 137 inmates who are awaiting trial. So far, 13 inmates have qualified for the new program and have been released from jail, at no cost to the defendant.
While some might think the program is designed to help overcrowding in the jail — which it does at a minor level — officials said the program was mainly designed to help court officials get a better handle on bonding issues.
In 2020, a change in the rules affecting the way courts use bonds will take effect, said Judge Dan Marshall of Hancock County Superior Court 2.
The idea is for inmates to get into court as soon as possible, rather than hit them with a bond they can’t afford. At the same time, the court will have extra scrutiny over which prisoners might be flight risks if they do bond out of jail.
“This program is a way for us to comply with the new trial rule in a way we think will work best for us,” Marshall said.
Marshall, who runs the county’s busiest court in dealing with misdemeanors and low-level felonies, said the state does not want to take the discretion of setting bonds away from judges, but rather wants court officials to start looking at bonds in a different way.
The Indiana Supreme Court in 2016 issued Criminal Rule 26, which states, “If an arrestee does not present a substantial risk of flight or danger to self or others, the court should release the arrestee without money bail or surety subject to such restrictions and conditions as determined by the court.”
Wayne Addison, the retired former head of probation for Hancock County, was hired by Marshall to run the county’s pretrial release program.
Addison has decades of experience working with inmates, and it gives him unique qualifications to make a pretrial program work, Marshall said.
The program is designed to help the court system get a better handle on which inmates are flight risks, and therefore should stay in jail with higher bonds, as opposed to those who maybe cannot post a bond but are not considered a flight risk.
“I know judges are excited about the program and reducing the failure-to-appear rate,” Addison said.
Addison starts each morning going over arrest logs, looking at charges and inmates’ record while watching video court to determine which inmates might qualify.
“I kind of basically disqualify people when I start the day,” Addison said.
Offenders cannot be released through the program if they are charged with high-level felonies, face an outstanding warrant; or already are on probation. Also, if there are indications the person might be a flight risk, they will not be eligible.
Once an inmate qualifies, Addison conducts an interview and does a risk assessment through a pretrial questionnaire before placing an inmate in the program.
Addison then emails the report to the judge and prosecutor. He then instructs Hancock County sheriff’s officials to have the offender appear in Superior Court 2 for a hearing. So far, Marshall has granted every request for the pretrial release program.
Addison then meets with the defendant right after court and gives him or her instructions on how to be successful in the program. Defendants will be texted multiple times to remind them of their upcoming court appearances.
Eleven other counties in the state ran pilot pretrial release programs last year and received help from state officials on how to set them up.
After talking with officials from some of those programs, Addison and local officials are taking a slightly different approach, going slowly, figuring out what works best for the county court system before institutionalizing the program.
Marshall’s court is currently the only county court using the pretrial program, but if it continues to go well, the other county courts will implement it as they see fit, Addison said.
The only cost for the county associated with the program is Addison’s salary and benefits, estimated around $65,000, which Marshall said ends up paying for itself with the money the county saves by not having to pay for inmates sitting in jail awaiting trial.