Hamilton County officials question jail expansion

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NOBLESVILLE, Ind. - The Hamilton County Council will discuss a jail expansion at its meeting Wednesday night that the sheriff says is desperately needed, but some council members disagree.

“When folks are victimized by somebody they certainly expect that there are going to be repercussions and that there are going to be consequences for those actions," Sheriff Mark Bowen, R- Hamilton County, said.  “Even if (the expansion) was approved tonight at the council meeting it would still be two years down the road before we’d see that relief with those additional beds, so really time is of the essence.”

The Hamilton County Jail, built 23 years ago, has been above its 296 bed capacity for quite some time. In 2015, the jail averaged 303 inmates per day and on Wednesday it housed 340 inmates.

Sheriff Bowen credits the increased amount of inmates to new sentencing guidelines handed down by the state, more crime caused by a population increase and more female inmates.

“We’re seeing a significant increase in the female population and we believe it has a lot to do with the drug issues we’re facing in Hamilton County just like everyone else across America," Bowen said.

Housing an increased amount of women has caused jail staff to move some inmates to the old juvenile detention center and others to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

To fix these issues, the sheriff is asking for a $12 million expansion. Six million dollars would go toward building a new pod to hold about 120 inmates and the other $6 million would go toward support services, including new dining hall and kitchen renovations to accommodate future growth.

“Those are all things we will be expanding over the course of time that we want to get ahead of and be prepared for," Bowen said.

However, some members of the Hamilton County Council, which has to approve the funding for the expansion, say the project is unnecessary.

“Historically, we’ve been at higher numbers, in terms of inmates, than what we have now so I don’t see it as a true crisis," said Rick McKinney, R- Hamilton County Council Member.  “We can’t just keep saying yes to every project an elected official ask for.”

McKinney says he's concerned about the county's finances and also the additional cost associated with the expansion.

As part of the project, the sheriff requested six additional employees costing more than $500,000 annually. That's on top of the $800,000 per year the council already approved this spring for additional jail staff.

“It’s not just a one-time cost," McKinney said. "There's an annual cost involved with healthcare.”

McKinney is also concerned the county could get burned by the investment if the state decides to change sentencing guidelines.

“Maybe we will decriminalize marijuana in the next year or two, maybe there will be less arrest so the volume will go down," he said. “What we’ve tried to get through to other officials is that, 'yes your project may be important, but it may not be the most important and it may not be urgent and you may have to continue how things are.'"

Sheriff Bowen will be at the council meeting Wednesday night at 7 p.m. to answer the council members' questions and plead his case for the expansion.

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