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Rep. Saunders helping find jail solutions

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

Henry County isn’t the only place struggling with an overcrowded jail. But it could be one of the first to solve the problem in a new way.

Henry County officials reached out to neighboring counties to see who might be interested in talking about a regional jail.

They found like-minded leaders in Madison County.

The idea of a regional jail is that several counties would help finance such a facility, but it could be run by private company. This would shift the direct employee and upkeep costs away from county taxpayers.

State Representative Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville) said Indiana lawmakers created language for a regional jail concept in 2018, but no one has taken advantage of it yet.

“There are no regional jails in Indiana,” Saunders said. “If it happens here, it’ll be a first.”

Saunders said Henry and Madison County representatives approached him about the idea.

The group also talked with the Indiana Sheriff’s Association and the Association of Indiana Counties.

Any counties considering a regional jail need to have the support of their sheriffs and county councils, Saunders said.

Saunders was particularly impressed the Henry County and Madison County Sheriffs and lawmakers were willing to talk about a regional solution. He appreciated seeing the cooperation beyond county lines.

“The two counties are looking outside the box to try to solve the problem,” Saunders said.

Saunders wanted to make sure people on the ground were at least in favor of a regional jail before he started pushing the idea through the legal process at the State House.

“We were trying to do our due diligence up front,” Saunders said.

He even double-checked the law with the Office of the Attorney General.

AG offers opinion

Before the legislative session got going full steam, Saunders asked Attorney General Curtis Hill to weigh in on the idea of regional jails.

Hill responded in Official Opinion 2019-1. In that opinion, the attorney general explained the General Assembly passed HEA 1263 in 2018, creating “the framework by which counties can work together in establishing and funding a regional jail.”

The new language for regional jails can be found in Indiana Code 11-12-5.5.

Hill said each county involved in such a process must first complete a feasibility study on the construction or reconstruction of their own county jail.

Counties partnering for a regional jail are also required to enter into an interlocal cooperation agreement.

In the case of creating local regional jail, the Henry County Sheriff and the Henry County Council would have to approve such an agreement before the Henry County Commissioners would be allowed to sign it with other counties.

Hill further explained a separate legal entity or board would be formed to oversee any regional jail.

Hill said the new board would then be able to enter into agreements with private contractors to build the facility, maintain the facility and/or operate the facility, as long as the regional jail agreement granted it the authority to do so.

If any partner counties plan to have a public-private partnership when it comes to a regional jail, the foundational agreement has to specifically give the new governing board the authority to enter into those types of agreements, the attorney general said.

Hill concluded “[t]he statutes are sufficiently broad to allow counties acting pursuant to an interlocal cooperation agreement to contract with a third-party contractor to construct, to maintain, and to operate a regional jail.”

Saunders plans to introduce a bill by the end of the month that will clean up language in the existing law to explicitly allow public-private partnerships on regional jails.

Local jails not going away

While a regional jail could be part of the solution for housing convicted inmates, Saunders does not think it’d be the right place for people who haven’t been to trial yet.

As of Thursday, 85 of the 110 inmates at Henry County Jail had not been sentenced. They were simply waiting for their court date.

Saunders said people waiting for trial should probably stay in their local county jails, which are usually located close to the courts they will appear in. This will keep transportation costs down.

By moving sentenced inmates to a regional facility, county jails might also find more room to implement treatment programs for pre-trial inmates.