Cost of crime climbs in Hancock County amid heroin epidemic

HANCOCK COUNTY, Ind.-- There are 153 beds in the Hancock County Jail for 181 inmates.

Prosecutor Brent Eaton needs more money in anticipation of three upcoming murder trials in a county that typically prosecutes one homicide case per year.

And a circuit judge has found it more economical and efficient to send drug defendants to a halfway house for treatment instead of the overcrowded county jail.

Like Marion County to the west and counties all across Indiana, Hancock County has discovered the costs of keeping its residents safe is climbing amid violence and an exploding heroin epidemic.

The Hancock County Council recently agreed to set aside an additional $20,000 to help Eaton prosecute cases against Damian Coleman, Shawn Hammons and Joseph Baker, each accused of murder, in the next four months.

“We’re accountable for having to pay for expert witnesses. Whenever you have a case involving an unnatural human death, there’s medical evidence you have to get in front of a jury and it requires us to have specialized witnesses to do that,” said Eaton. “The amount of money we’ll need for those types of witnesses and those types of litigation expenses is going to exceed our budget.”

Eaton is hopeful at least one of the cases will be resolved with a plea agreement that would negate additional spending.

Since January 1, 2015, Eaton’s office has handled eight homicide or murder cases which at a rate that is far above the annual average.

“We certainly hope this is an anomaly and not a trend,” said Eaton. “We hope that these types of crimes will be a decreasing number in our community.”

What is not decreasing is the number of offenders locked up inside the Hancock County Jail, which is 28 inmates above capacity.

Recently, the sheriff was granted approval to transfer some offenders to Daviess County, which has excess beds.

Consultants have recommended spending $25 million to build a new jail.

Circuit Judge Richard Culver has already started experimenting with the type of alternative sentencing and bail reconsideration endorsed by the Indiana Supreme Court.

The Court recently announced a bail reform pilot program for nine Indiana counties to utilize a pre-trial release protocol that allows defendants to await trial at home as opposed to inside crowded county jails.

In Hancock County, Judge Culver has turned to alternative sentencing to offer drug defendants treatment instead of incarceration.

“If the defendant agrees to go to a halfway house, we release them on their own recognizance on the condition that they go from the jail directly to the halfway house,” said Culver, “and if they do that then there are no additional legal consequences and we are giving them credit for being in the halfway house as opposed to being in the Hancock County Jail.”

Since March, five offenders have successfully completed the program, three are still enrolled, four are in the jail awaiting assignment and two inmates failed to live up their commitments. One offender killed himself after being transferred to the Marion County Jail.

“If we can get them clean and sober and into a solid program it will reduce the likelihood that they’re going to OD on us. If we can keep them clean and sober then the philosophy is, we’re going to reduce the thefts and we reduce the burglaries,” said Culver.  “If they go and they follow the program then that tends to be the end of the story. The prosecutor does not come back and say, ‘We need X number of days in jail.’ They’re trading that for exchange into immediate entry into a program and getting treatment. We’re actually giving them credit for the time they spent in the halfway house as if they had been in the jail.”

Marion County judges reported last week that they have already put some of their own protocols into effect to divert some of the defendants who come before them from the county jail to community corrections and home detention.

Wednesday morning, representatives from the state’s criminal justice system and supporting agencies will meet under the leadership of the Supreme Court in an ongoing process to identify inefficiencies and reforms to streamline the arrest, trial, treatment and incarceration system in Indiana.