County officials and local legislators convened at the Huntington County Courthouse to discuss two bills introduced by the Indiana House of Representatives that could alleviate jail overcrowding issues facing the Huntington County Jail.
If passed, County Council president Kendall Mickley said House Bill 1078 would allow counties to send violent or repeat Level 6 felony offenders to Indiana Department of Correction facilities, and House Bill 1065 would allow counties to send any Level 6 offenders to the state if the jail is currently over capacity.
At the time of the meeting, the jail had 132 inmates in the facility even though their maximum capacity is rated at 98 beds.
“These bills would have an immediate impact on our overcrowding issue as the facility,” Mickley said. “They are discussing would be reopening an existing state prison that was idled… (We had) 39 Level 6 felons in the facility, so we would effectively be under the 98 capacity if we transferred them to the state,”
“HB1065 definitely was the big win in my opinion, as if passes, it will buy us some time to really evaluate what type of expansion will be needed, if any,” Mickley added.
The County Council passed an income tax late last year to begin saving money to alleviate overcrowding issues at the jail, but no decision has been finalized for plans of a possible expansion or new facility. Mickley said the current plan is to add onto the current jail to make rooms for enough beds, and the Commissioners and Sheriff are currently working with DLZ on potential designs. No designs have been approved yet.
Mickley said the meeting was mainly for data collection and collaboration, but he said the introduction of these bills “helps on the urgency of the situation should they pass in some fashion.”
He added that the Commissioners and Sheriff are planning a trip to Georgia to look at a potential design where enclosed jail cells that can be dropped into a shell building.
According to Rep. Dan Leonard (R-Huntington), the two bills may blend into one bill as the Indiana legislature moves forward with its legislative session, which ends on April 29 this year.
The panel of county leaders also discussed the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the community in regards to the jail overcrowding situation.
For strengths, Mickley said that the county has had good outcomes in regards to community corrections, citing a 60 percent success rate, and he said that the county has strong support from church and organizations to help rehabilitate current and released inmates.
For weaknesses, Mickley said the courts see the same people with high recidivism rates, where inmates reoffend once released, citing a lack of rehabilitation resources in local jails. The County Commissioners previously discussed how the Indiana Department of Correction had resources on hand to rehabilitate addicted inmates but since they mandated that counties take back Level 6 felons, lack of addiction counselors has been a statewide problem.
The County saw opportunities for alternative sentencing programs and problem-solving courts, like the drug court, veteran’s court and family court. They are looking at a new chemical addictions program to community corrections, where drug-related felons are housed in a separate location from general population.
In the meantime, Sheriff Chris Newton is looking to bring church services and other counseling to the jail once the most recent addition, a recreation room, to the jail is completed. Newton is also bringing in tablets so that inmates can complete programs online.
The biggest threat, according to the discussion, was that most offenses stem from drug and substance abuse but no additional funding from the state has been provided to get down to the root of the issue. Mickley said drugs are more addictive now than ever and the lack of jail space threatens their ability to stay aggressive on enforcement.