GREENFIELD — When Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton recently went before the county council with a plea to hire a new deputy prosecutor, he had math on his side.
The caseload in his office, he said, is up 26 percent since 2010. The number of lower-level felony cases his office handles is up 400 percent just since 2014. Even the number of search warrants is up: Last year, law enforcement handled 218 warrants, up from 36 in 2014.
From record numbers of people in the county jail to crowded court dockets to a probation department struggling with a huge caseload, the county’s criminal justice system is showing the strain. The well-documented opioid epidemic is a factor. So is energetic prosecution of crimes. (“We’re on the offense,” Eaton said in an interview last week.)
And of course, as the county grows, so does crime. The county’s population in 2006 was about 50,000. This year, it will be about 75,000.
As the county struggles with questions over paying for a new jail — and how to pay for the staffing it will require — it’s instructive to look at some of the numbers underpinning the debate.
In 2010, for example, a total of 1,964 criminal cases were filed by prosecutors. The number rose to 2,488 in 2018, according to figures released by the Hancock County prosecutor’s office.
The increase covers a wide variety of illegal deeds, from misdemeanors to Level 1 felonies. In 2014, there were only 129 Level 6 felony cases in the county, but there were 653 in 2018 — five times more than just five years ago.
The trend is particularly startling surrounding the use of illegal drugs. County statistics show there were 396 total felony drug cases in 2011. The figure grew to 1,073 in 2018.
An increase in drug use is a trend county officials saw coming from following criminal drug testing, which showed massive increases in the use of opioids and heroin starting in 2015, Eaton said.
Not only are more crimes being committed, but criminal cases have become more complex, Eaton said. Evidence-gathering has been made more challenging by technology. Cases often are made because of incriminating evidence found in text messages, emails, pictures and on social media. That takes resources to investigate, Eaton said.
Maj. Bobby Campbell, chief deputy of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, said crime overflowing into Hancock County from Marion County is a factor. So is the backlog of unsolved crimes.
“They’re not just solving the crime of the week or the day, they have to work on things from maybe a year ago, and then also work with the trends of current crimes,” Campbell said.
Eaton also cites the Zoey Wagoner case as perhaps a catalyst for empowering more people to report crimes against children. Zoey was a year old when she died in 2015 of blunt-force injuries inflicted by her father, Matthew Wagoner, who is now in prison. Since his trial in 2016, county officials have noted an increase in reports of abuse.
“I think the mentality has changed,” Eaton said.
At the other end of the criminal justice system, pressure is rising as well. The increase in criminal activity has a direct impact on the county’s probation department, said Josh Sipes, head of the probation department.
The county is currently supervising nearly 2,000 adults on probation or in treatment services. He has a staff of 26, including himself, and 16 probation officers carry heavy caseloads into the hundreds.
In fact, the county probation system is gaining cases faster than it is losing them, Sipes said.
“Keep in mind not everyone does a six-month probation,” Sipes said. “Some of these people are on probation for years.”