Kosciusko County Council is closer to approving a budget for 2018 that lacks very few large changes, but will likely face bigger decisions next year involving courts and the jail.
The county jail is creeping closer to capacity, with nearly half of the inmates awaiting trial because of a backlog of cases in the four existing courts.
Council members are aware of the growing problem, but statistics aired last week during a council budget session underscore the situation.
According to Superior Court I Judge David Cates, his court has seen a 100 percent increase in criminal filings in the past 2½ years. His juvenile caseload has risen 21 percent during the same time period. Civil filings, he said, are up 81 percent.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Rocky Goshert told council last week that despite the establishment of several diversion programs aimed at reducing the jail population and other adjustments within the jail, the number of inmates in recent weeks in now hovering around 302. With other changes, including the use of portable beds in group settings, the capacity can be pushed to 326, he said.
Part of the increase in jail population is due to the state’s decision to house low-level offenders in local jails.
Cates said he likes the idea that was touted by council member Sue Ann Mitchell last week to bring together all the players to assess what is needed.
“Everything is inter-related,” Cates said.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed,” he said.
According to one study from the Indiana Supreme Court, Kosciusko County ranks among the top in the state in terms of “severity of need” for more courts.
The county sought legislation this year through the Indiana General Assembly that would create a fifth court, but the bill did not advance and officials were told that a study committee would need to look at the request before lawmakers take a serious look at the request.
Cates said he’s been told a study committee may look at the county’s request and that local officials will be given a chance to testify this fall.
That would set the stage for consideration by lawmakers early next year.
“I’m hopeful the legislative study committee will be scheduled soon so we can go down and express our needs,” Cates said.
One thing working in the county’s favor is that the justice building renovations in 2003 included an additional room that could be used for a fifth court.
If approved, Cates suggested the court could be created by July.
If approved, the state would cover the cost of the new judge, but the county would pay for additional support staff and supplies.
Such a move would diminish the problem, but would not fix it.
“Even if we add a judge, we will still be above the mean and above the median in Indiana counties as far as judicial workload,” Cates said.
Last week, council killed a request by Prosecutor Dan Hampton, who sought an additional deputy prosecutor, which would include a salary of about $88,000. He said the need for additional help has existed for more than two years, but that he had waited to make the request until county finances had improved.
He disagreed with council’s notion that the need for another prosecutor is best addressed with future court expansion, but chose not to take a strong stand in public.
“I would hope and pray that you give me consideration next year for another deputy prosecutor,” Hampton told council members last week.
The sheriff’s budget for 2018 does reflect a growing jail population.
Goshert requested and received an additional $36,000 for inmate meals for next year and a $5,000 increase for drug testing for work release inmates.
Goshert could not be reached for comment this morning.
Reducing Jail Population
Meanwhile, the county is taking steps and looking at other moves to reduce the jail population.
The county recently expanded its work release to include women and the total number of offenders in the program is now around 80.
The county also has established several programs to reduce the number of people housed in the jail. Those include a veterans court with Noble County, a community corrections program that was set up less than two years ago and a drug court.
The drug court’s future is in jeopardy because grant money will soon expire.
Funding is set to expire by the end of September, but Hampton expressed confidence that money would be found to keep the drug court running.
The county jail could see some relief in the future under a program that would allow more incoming low-level offenders to be released on their own recognizance.
The state is testing the policy in pilot programs in several counties and could be expanded to others, including Kosciusko County, in the next few years.
But Cates points out more trained staff would be needed to evaluate the offenders.
Council on Thursday met briefly to discuss the budget and will return in September to finalize salaries and the entire budget.
Council approved a plan that would bring pay levels for three people in the county’s solid waste office up to par with the county’s pay structure.
Otherwise, council embraced a plan to provide up to 3 percent hikes in pay for county employees, but also urged department heads to evaluate their staff and determine if all deserve the maximum 3 percent.