COLUMBIA CITY —Whitley County government officials are facing a dire situation as they consider their next course of action for the Whitley County Jail, which has been deemed as “non-compliant” by the state. If the county does not become compliant, the jail could be shut down and inmates sent to other facilities.

Local officials agree that many factors are contributing to the jail in its current state, some changes that were set in motion years ago, and others that are more recent.

Changes at the state level

The state of Indiana made changes to its criminal code in July 2014 that greatly impacted county jails.

The state restructured its levels and classes of felonies and misdemeanors, with the intention of moving lower-level offenders out of jails.

“That’s all well and good, but it also shifted low-level offenders out of the Department of Corrections and into county jails,” Whitley County Prosecutor D.J.Sigler said. “Now, we’re bearing the fruit of that.”

Though many believe the state had good intentions, much of the burden of the changes fell on county jails.

While legislatures were trying to save the state money, expenses were shifted to county government instead.

“What used to be Class D felonies, we could send to prisons,” Jail Commander SeanMartin said. “Now, all Level 6 felons are in the county jail, excluding a few exceptions.”

Higher-level felonies, mostly Level 1-5, appear before Judge Matthew Rentschler in Whitley Circuit Court. Lower-level crimes such as Level 6 felonies and misdemeanors, appear before Judge Doug Fahl in Whitley Superior Court.

Examples of Level 6 felonies include some first-time drug possessions or an individual’s second operating while intoxicated charge.

Case explosion

Whitley County’s Superior Court saw what Fahl calls an “explosion” of cases in 2017. While the court only had a total of 764 criminal cases in 2015 and 733 in 2016, it had 1,031 in 2017.

Most of the increases were in Class C misdemeanors (increase of 222 cases) and Level 6 felonies (increase of 89 cases).

Whitley Circuit Court has also seen an increase in cases — nearly triple since 2015. There were 57 cases in 2015, 90 in 2016 and 155 in 2017.

Officials aren’t certain what is contributing to the jump, but have speculated.

One thing that is likely is the prevalence of fresh, energetic law enforcement officers in the county. Columbia City’s Police Department and the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department have seen turnover as older officers are retiring and new, young officers are replacing them.

About half of Columbia City’s 19-officer department has three years or less of experience. Chief Tony Hively says the mixture of seasoned officers and young officers has been a benefit to his department.

“It’s a good mix, we’re well-balanced,” Hively said. “Our very knowledgeable and experienced officers can mentor the younger officers.”

The younger officers have a fresh perspective and can “cover more ground,” as Hively said. “It’s a good mix.”

Sigler applauds the energy of both the experienced and new officers.

“The increase in cases is a reflection of good and aggressive policing,” Sigler said. “They have strong leadership and good training.”

Sigler took the reins as prosecutor in 2017 after Rentschler was elected as Circuit Court judge, and is similarly showing energy in his work as a prosecutor.

Sigler gave the go-ahead, with the work of local law enforcement, to conduct a drug and warrant sweep, which netted 25-30 cases at once.

More cases bring more criminals off the streets but makes it difficult for Judge Fahl’s staff to keep up, and for cases to be concluded in a timely manner.

“Our staff has trouble getting all the paperwork done,” Fahl said. “So far, they’ve been fantastic — they just get tired.”

The state can add an additional Superior Court in Whitley County to lighten the caseload of the other judges, however, it is unclear if the spike in cases will be ongoing, or if 2017 was unique. Regardless, Whitley County’s Courthouse doesn’t have room to add another courtroom at this time.

Tough on crime

Whitley County has a reputation for being hard on crime.

While longer sentences and more arrests may add to the inmate population, many local officials believe taking a firm stance on “smaller” crimes helps to thwart “bigger crimes,” such as high-level felonies.

“If you treat the smaller crimes tough, you chase off the bigger criminals,” Fahl said. “That’s how we maintain a safe community.”

Law enforcement officers in the field have notices that criminals are disappointed when they realize they were caught in Whitley County, rather than another nearby county.

“People were upset their crime occurred in Whitley County because they know their punishment will be worse,” Sheriff Marc Gatton said.

Some criminals have gotten smart to Whitley County’s firm stance against crime.

“There are dealers out of Allen County who won’t even set foot in this county,” Sigler said. “We’ve had good success with drug prosecutions for so long, it’s something I am proud of.”

Fahl relates sentencing low-level crimes to parenting children.

“If you’re raising your kids and you let them get away with stuff, and don’t enforce the small rules, they will get into more trouble later,” Fahl said. “It’s the same with criminal activity. People either stop, or they move to another county where they can get away with more. We’re not on a small-town power trip, we’re just trying to keep our community safe.

“I grew up not having to lock my doors in Columbia City. I want it to be a place where you can go home and not have to worry about locking the door three times behind you.”

Fahl said Whitley County is fortunate to have quality police officers with good training and a prosecutor who knows how to take that police work to court.

“We have tough prosecutors who are good trial lawyers,” Fahl said. “Often, defense attorneys will plead their people out. If you look at our plea agreement, criminals will get a lot stiffer penalty here — and that’s what our residents expect. That’s how we maintain a safe community. If you’re going to be a hardcore criminal, you’ll go somewhere else.”

Though Martin and his staff are overbooked and understaffed, they don’t discredit the longer sentences handed down by judges.

“The sentences are lengthier, but it’s good for the community to know the judges give people time for the crimes they commit,” Martin said.

Continuous cycle

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Whitley County criminal justice officials are finding that phrase to be true, as some criminals are seemingly unwilling to help themselves.

The recidivism rate in Whitley County was 70 percent in 2016, and Gatton expects when statistics are compiled, that number will be even higher in 2017.

Sigler says the highest recidivism rate is in drug and addition related cases, and lower with violent criminals.

Judge Fahl, Prosecutor Sigler, Sheriff Gatton and Martin all agree that the attitudes of people going through the criminal justice system are much different than they used to be.

“When I first got here, the local jail population was a bunch of good people who made some poor decisions,” Sigler said.

Sigler used “Otis” from “The Andy Griffith Show” as an analogy.

“There were a lot of people like that (Otis), who just had substance abuse issues, but were good, decent people,” Sigler said. “There’s a different edge added to criminal defendants these days.”

The types and potency of drugs on the street are changing, and that’s evident in the behavior of abusers in and out of the jail.

In the past, the person high on marijuana would be driving extraordinarily slow, and that’s how officers knew they were impaired.

“Now, our officers say the THC level is so high in marijuana that people are getting pulled over going 85 miles per hour on U.S. 30,” Fahl said.

Changes in behavior aren’t only evident when the crimes are committed, but inside the jail walls as well.

“This is a different class of inmate we have now,” Martin said. “There used to be at least a bit of respect. Now, they’re damaging jail property, getting in fights and getting more charges put on them.”

When that happens, inmates often lose their opportunity to participate in programs such as work release and home detention, further clogging up the jail with more people.

Even when inmates do finish serving their time, drug and alcohol abusers often end up back in jail shortly after being released.

“People get out and do it again,” Gatton said.

In 2017, Whitley County had 1,484 jail bookings, primarily for probation violation.

The male-to-female ratio has seen changes as well, with many more women serving time than in years past.

“When I started here in 1996, we had one female,” Martin said. “And for the longest time, we only had that one female. Now, there are times we’ve had so many that I’ve had to put them in two blocks.”

Twenty-seven inmates can fit in one block. At one point, there were 35 females incarcerated.

“Their (female) crimes used to be really minor. Now, they’re just the same as the men,” Martin said.

Confinement officers face more challenges now than ever. Since September, three jailers have been injured, resulting in them being unable to do their jobs for a period of time. Inmates have been getting in physical altercations with each other and with jailers.

Every time an incident happens, confinement officers have to document it with an incident report. In 2017, there were about 1,200 incident reports.

“It’s a dangerous environment,” Martin said. “It’s a struggle every day just to keep up.”

The jail has 18 confinement officers and the state indicated the county needs an additional 12 officers to be compliant with its standards. However, as reported in last week’s newspaper, the cost of a jailer is about $57,000 each. Twelve additional confinement officers would cost the county $684,000 per year — an expense the county isn’t prepared to mitigate.

“It’s a stressful and draining environment to work in,” Martin said. “We’ve lost people — they get burnt out and move on. It’s hard to keep morale up.”