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Possible partners in detention center project

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

Ball State students could start helping with some of the heavy lifting as Henry County continues to tackle its overcrowded and outdated jail.

A local community task force is researching a new detention center for the county. The task force is broken into several different committees that are focusing on things like alternatives to incarceration, educational planning and a new inmate classification system.

Ball State University Assistant Lecturer in Criminal Justice and Criminology Jennifer Christman attended the task force’s meeting Wednesday evening to offer any help she could.

Christman said Henry County’s problem is just the sort of project to show her institutional corrections students how detention centers impact a community.

“This is a very real project with very real implications and very real results,” she said.

The ultimate goal of the Henry County committees is to figure out how to lower the number of people in jail, how to turn the “jail” into a “detention and treatment facility” and how to pay for it all.

This would be the first time that Christman’s advanced-level students undertook a project of this magnitude.

If the Henry County committees partner with Christman’s class, the criminal justice students could assist with collecting data, interviewing community members and combing through recent reports and studies about Henry County’s aging jail.

The Cardinals could do the full-time legwork that many of the Henry County committee members might not have time to do.

Christman emphasized that her students would only supplement local efforts, not take them over.

“This is a learning experience,” Christman told the task force volunteers. “At the end of the day, we are supporting you, not replacing you.”

“But please don’t underestimate my students,” she added.

A partnership with the BSU Criminal Justice class would not only save time for local volunteers, but it could also come with some cost-savings to local taxpayers.

Christman said there are funding options on the university side to cover materials and other resources her students might need while researching the Henry County facility.

The local committees are going to meet individually to discuss how they’d put the BSU students to use if they were available.

Task force members Betsy Mills and Jonathan Mock will work as liaisons between Christman and the committees while they continue to discuss a possible partnership.

The detention facility task force also heard from Henry County Prosecutor Joe Bergacs Wednesday evening.

Bergacs talked about Henry County’s veteran court and drug court.

Both of these “problem-solving courts” are specifically designed to help change lifestyles, rather than just dole out punishments for people who broke the law.

“Our goal is to get them to be productive members of society,” Bergacs said. “It’s really a win-win for the whole process, assuming everyone cooperates and does what they’re supposed to.”

When offenders go through the drug court program, they are subject to random drug tests and have to maintain meaningful employment.

Bergacs said a couple New Castle factories have already started hiring people going through the process.

More employers should participate, since they are guaranteed to get workers who can pass the initial drug screens, Bergacs said.

Bergacs said the drug court doesn’t cost taxpayers any extra money, either. Everyone involved, from the judge to the prosecutor to the probation officer and the sheriff, are already being paid.

If anything, the drug court saves tax dollars by diverting people away from the jail, which is already overcrowded.

The Henry County Detention and Treatment Facility Task Force is visiting a facility in Columbus, Ohio next week to learn some other options for the local project.

The caravan leaves the Henry County Justice Center at 6 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 15. Look for coverage of that trip in an upcoming edition of The Courier-Times.