COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County Community Corrections is exploring alternative options to incarceration through the development of a pretrial release and services program.

Pretrial release is intended to restructure the bail bond process in a way that would involve a more case-by-case process of determining bail amounts as opposed to handing down the “standard” amount based solely on the offense committed.

“Right now the process we use, we just have a schedule that says if your charged with a class A misdemeanor, your bond is going to be this amount,” Whitley Circuit Court Judge Mathew Rentschler said. “It doesn’t take into account any of the characteristics of the offender. It’s very broad in general and not very specific.”

Come 2020, this new way of determining bail is expected to become state law, according to Rentschler, so in the meantime, he and Whitley Superior Court Judge Douglas Fahl felt it was a good idea to already get the ball rolling by bringing this pretrial services program to the county.

“Essentially, lower-level offenders who are not at a risk to fail to appear or are a low risk to fail to appear be released without bond or on their own recognizance, or at least take those things into account when making bond,” Rentschler said.

For inmates, this option could mean that they get to return home and hopefully back on the right track to a law-abiding life, without having to send themselves or their loved ones into debt trying to bail them out.

“It’s to help people who have made mistakes and have been arrested that maybe don’t belong in jail,” Paula Reimers, local pretrial services coordinator, said. “This way, we can get these people back to their families faster, back to their jobs.”

In addition, Reimers pointed out, it will mean taxpayers aren’t paying for low-level offenders to sit in jail when they could be released and return to being productive contributors to society.

This program would also serve as a tool to curb the ever-growing population in local jails. Weeding out low-risk offenders and releasing them will ease the burden on local facilities and correctional staff. It will also help to change the perception that every lawbreaker should be in jail and that every person in jail is a serious criminal.

“Jail is not a panacea for all of our problems,” Rentschler said. “It’s important to distinguish between people who need to be in jail for public safety or perhaps their own safety and certainly for risk on nonappearance, from the others who should not be in jail because they are not a public safety risk or danger to themselves.”

The program has a projected July 1 launch date, according to Reimers, but there is a lot of work to be done beforehand. In this initial stage, Rentschler and Fahl are expected to spearhead the development efforts and tailor policies so that they align with the values and ideals of Whitley County. After the program is in full swing, the judges will rely on the pretrial services personnel to handle the bulk of cases, only coming in to interject on more difficult decisions.

A committee of stakeholders, including representatives from Whitley County Commissioners, Whitley County Council and the prosecutor’s office, will meet regularly establish certain guidelines for the Whitley County program. Such terms and conditions that the group may determine include which types of crimes may or may not qualify a person for pretrial release or when a hearing with a judge is necessary prior to release.

The guidelines and duties of the programs will then be turned over to Reimers and her staff.

“Once (the committee) gets together some guidelines, they’ll work with me and I’ll make sure their guidelines are followed and adhered to,” Reimers said. “My group is going to be the ones to do background checks and meet with people booked into jail to determine whether or not they can be released.”

Once individuals are released, Reimers and her staff will then be subject to staying in touch with those folks regularly, in person and over the phone, to make sure they aren’t reoffending and to remind them of their court dates and other obligations attached to their release.

Periodically, the stakeholders will be brought back together to evaluate how smoothly the program is running and suggest ways to improve it further.

“It will be looked at by those key people, especially the judges, and reviewed over time,” Reimers said. “(Others) say to expect changes because it’s not going to be perfect out of the gate.”

As the perspective within the justice system begins to change, the hope is that the community’s perspective about the justice system will evolve as well.

“I hope they think it is the justice system being smarter,” Rentschler said. “We’re doing our best to use taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible to keep the community at wide safe, to effectively administrate justice and not to waste what limited resources we have.”