After passing the Indiana Senate recently, House Bill 1078 could bring changes that the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department says it desperately needs to fix overcrowding issues at the jail.

With a 35 percent increase in court filings this year, Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton and Chief Deputy Sheriff Chad Hammel say the criminal justice system is at a breaking point, since a bill passed in 2015 forced county jails to house Level 6 felons instead of the Indiana Department of Correction (DOC), which traditionally housed all felons in Indiana.

“It’s turning into a criminal justice crisis in Huntington County,” Hammel said. “(The) probation department is so overwhelmed (that) it’s disgusting. (The) prosecutor’s office: unbelievably busy. (The) judge’s office: unbelievable. Police officers covering the roads: busy all the time… It’s coming from all directions. Rehabilitating them at the county level is not by design.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Newton added. “We’re barely keeping our head above water right now with staffing.”

Huntington County isn’t the only place in Indiana feeling the pressure.

According to a 2017 jail inspection report by the (DOC), 37 of the 92 counties in Indiana are at or over 100 percent capacity, and 59 counties are at or over 80 percent capacity.

H.B. 1078, which would allow counties to send certain Level 6 felons back to the (DOC), passed the House of Representatives with a 96-0 vote and the Senate with a 46-2 vote in favor of passing the bill.

The bill has changed since it was authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald (R-Avon), but the latest version would allow a court to relocate a Level 6 felony offender from a county jail to DOC if the person is a violent offender or has two prior unrelated felony convictions.

Steuerwald filed a motion to dissent on April 9, which means he doesn’t fully agree with the bill’s language, but Rep. Andy Zay (R-Huntington) said he believes the bill will ultimately pass after some changes are made.

“I suspect there will be some technical corrections, but I’m almost certain that they will get it back to us and then turn into law,” Zay said.

Newton said he’s not sure if the bill will solve the overcrowding issues at the Huntington County Jail yet, since the bill is not finalized and parts of the original bill included certain restrictions which would not allow the county to send Level 6 offenders to DOC unless their sentence is a certain length. But Newton said he thinks the change would benefit taxpayers and the inmates themeslves.

“The resources that they’re going to have at the state level is not what they’re going to be getting here … We’re not really built for rehabilitation. At the state, they have all of that, whether it is for substance abuse or alcohol, detox, mental health. They have all those programs in place.”

The jail recently finished a renovation that will allow the Bowen Center and Dream Center to provide inmates with rehabilitation classes, but Newton said those programs are funded with grants which could dry up and eventually cost the county more money to provide those services.

“When you don’t have anything like that or space to do it, it becomes expensive to figure that out,” he said.

Zay said he doesn’t think the State of Indiana will be able to solve the entire jail overcrowding issue alone, but he said this bill will be “a step in the right direction.”

There are other bills also being considered by the Indiana General Assembly which focus on curbing the jail overcrowding issue, like House Bill 1065 which would allow sheriffs to transfer Level 6 felons to regional holding facilities if they exceed their maximum number of inmates.

“If they could get both of those bills passed, we would be sitting in pretty good shape and we probably wouldn’t have to be building a new jail,” Newton said.

Newton added that he’s glad that the Huntington County Council had the foresight to begin collecting money using a 2018 law that allows counties to impose an income tax in order to make jail improvements, since there is so much uncertainty surrounding the legislation this year.

“I’m hopeful that this HB 1078 provides us a little bit of relief,” he said. “Nothing would make this sheriff happier than saying that we don’t have to build a new jail, but I don’t know if that is a promise we can make at this point and time. Only time will tell.”

© 2020 The Herald-Press