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Jail expansion awaits pending legislation

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

The Huntington County Council held off on appropriating the estimated $1.5 million in revenue to be collected in 2019 after a new income tax was levied last year to fix overcrowding issues at the jail. 

County Council president Kendall Mickley said the board decided to only appropraite the $25,000 needed to finish off a recent expansion of the jail’s recreation room, which now allows the jail to offer substance abuse programming and church services aimed at stemming recidivism rates. Mickley said their decision came after they heard promising news that two bills currently going through the Indiana General Assembly could fix some of the overcrowding their experiencing. 

“House Bill 1065 is moving nicely, which will give Sheriffs the authority to move Level 6 inmates to the state jails, helping with overcrowding, so we may be scaling things back significantly,” Mickley said. “But for now we’re kind of in a holding pattern with regards to any expansion.”

The bill would allow judges and sheriffs to send inmates who would currently be sent to county jail to Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities that offer mental health and substance abuse treatment, workforce development, educational programs, and other evidence based programs designed to reduce recidivism, something Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton and the Huntington County Commissioners have said the County wasn’t prepared to provide when the Indiana General Assembly decided to force county jails to house Level 6 offenders. 

In the meantime, DLZ, the engineering and architectural firm overseeing jail projects, is currently working on different designs for possible expansions, and the latest discussions all lean to improving the current facility to meet demands. Mickley said DLZ is doing survey work and other tasks in case they decide to move forward with an expansion.

“Even if we proceed with an addition, we’re a year out at best,” Mickley reports. “All plans hinge on this house bill.”

House Bill 1065 was approved on third reading by the Indiana House of Representatives, with 74 votes in favor and 17 opposed, and recently passed a vote from the Senate Comittee on Corrections and Criminal Law unanimously on March 19. The bill was reassigned to the Senate Comittee on Appropriations, where it will then reach the Senate floor for a full vote, if approved. 

Mickley said he’s heard that Gov. Eric Holcomb may oppose the bill, but he said he encourages everyone in Huntington County to call their legislator and write Holcomb a letter because it would lessen the financial burden on Huntington County. 

“I’m hearing the governor is giving a bit of pushback on it, but that’s just hearsay at this point,” he said. “The bill needs to pass or jails will be busting at the seams all over the state.”

Nearly half of the county jails in Indiana are over maximum capacity, according to a fiscal impact statement filed with House Bill 1065. That report says more than 1,300 current inmates meet the requirements necessary to transfer them to DOC, which is about half the number of Level 6 felons incarcerated during a head count in March this year. 

In order to house the Level 6 felons, DOC will need to renovate two existing facilities, one for male inmates and one for females, which the fiscal report estimates will cost nearly $22 million between fiscal years 2020-21. 

Currently, sheriffs are being paid $35 per day to house Level 6 inmates, according to the report, but reports from the U.S. Marshals’ Office says the average cost to house a person in a county jail is $54 per day. If passed, the bill would reportedly allow sheriffs to pay $35 per inmate per day to house the Level 6 felons at a regional holding facility. 

In regards to Huntington County plans, Mickely said they don’t expect much more expenses related to the project this year. The jail tax is expected to generate $1.5 million each year but could be modified to a lower rate if the council decides to lower it. The revenue generated can only go toward improvements at the jail.