HANCOCK COUNTY — State lawmakers are pursuing measures that aim to reduce jail overcrowding as the county’s new, larger lockup nears completion.

But that hardly negates the need for the bigger facility, according to the county sheriff, who supports the bill making its way through the Indiana legislature.

House Bill 1004 would allow judges to send those convicted of Level 6 felonies, Indiana’s least-severe felony designation, to Indiana Department of Correction prisons instead of county jails.

Indiana Rep. Randall Frye, R-Greensburg, authored the bill while Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, is a co-author.

It reverses a measure the state established several years ago that redirected Level 6 felony offenders from state prisons to county jails, which many counties blamed for overcrowding issues.

Sheriff Brad Burkhart said it contributed to overcrowding in Hancock County’s jail as well. He remembered having 240 inmates crammed into the 157-bed facility at one time, not including the 70 other inmates housed at other facilities in the state.

Burkhart said overcrowding at the jail was an issue before that criminal sentencing reform, however.

He would welcome the bill’s passage.

“It’s a game-changer hopefully,” he said. “We’ll see how that works out. I’m glad it gives the courts an opportunity to leverage a different decision.”

Of the Hancock County Jail’s current 156 inmates, 70 are Level 6 offenders, Burkhart said.

“I don’t believe all 70 would end up in the Department of Correction, but even half of those are going to help your population out considerably,” he said.

The county’s new, bigger jail is still needed as its citizenry increases, Burkhart continued.

“The growth makes a difference as well,” he said. “As the county grows, unfortunately you have to have a bigger space to hold people that do bad.”

According to its prosecutor’s office, Hancock County had about 250 Level 6 convictions last year.

Brent Eaton, county prosecutor, said courts having the ability to send Level 6 offenders to prison goes beyond just easing jail overcrowding. Having enough room in jail means having enough availability for consequences for those who break the law or violate terms of community corrections and probation, he said. That allows the local justice system to have an effective level of accountability and crime deterrence, ultimately making the county safer, he continued.

“The prosecutor’s office is always going to be in favor of those mechanisms where there’s going to be greater accountability for people,” Eaton said.

Indiana Rep. Chris Jeter, R-Fishers, whose district includes part of Hancock County, noted in a news release that most felony criminal filings in Indiana are Level 6 felonies, with many of those substance-related, like drug possession or operating while intoxicated. He added the state often offers greater access to mental health and addiction treatment services than what’s available at the county level.

“Moving Level 6 felony offenders to the DOC can help reduce overcrowding, which can be a strain on local budgets and present safety concerns,” Jeter said. “Giving judges this flexibility could ease this pressure and provide more opportunities for offenders to get access to treatment.”

The Indiana House of Representatives passed the bill 90-3 last month, sending it to the state Senate, where it awaits consideration from the Committee on Appropriations.
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