GOSHEN — People facing lower-level criminal charges who pose little risk to re-offend may get out of jail quicker under new rules that go into effect next year.

The state guideline, called Criminal Rule 26, was piloted in 11 counties after the Indiana Supreme Court adopted it in 2016. It will apply to all courts in the state in January. 

To prepare for that, Elkhart County Council voted to hire a new probation officer in the pretrial division. The position will help speed low-level offenders through the system quicker, said Kirt Hunsberger, county human resources director, in presenting the request.

Criminal Rule 26 encourages courts to use evidence-based risk assessments to determine if someone poses a serious flight risk or a danger the community. Circuit Court Judge Michael Christofeno explained that under the rule, a probation officer will decide soon after someone’s arrest whether they pose a risk to re-offend while out on bond, and set their bond amount accordingly.

He said it could save a lot of people their jobs if they were able to get out of jail quicker.

“The thought is, a lot of the Level 6 and misdemeanant offenders in (Superior) Courts 4, 5 and 6 would be on lower bond. So it’s designed to get people out quicker so they keep their jobs, so they stay employed, so the family stays intact,” Christofeno said.

Councilman Dave Hess asked about the difference between the new position and the jail capacity coordinator, which the county established several years ago.

Christofeno said that more than addressing overcrowding at the jail, the officer would make referrals for services for people who are arrested. He said it wouldn’t  force people into treatment, but it would give them the opportunity sooner and tell them it would be in their best interest.

“It’s gonna go farther because the thought would be, when you’re doing this analysis you wouldn’t just stop there and say, ‘OK, you’re gonna be released on your own recognizance or the bond’s going to be $1,000 instead of $3,000,’” he said. “You would say, ‘Oh yeah and by the way, this person needs addictions treatment, and the addictions treatment ought to be here,’ and you would get the people into services quicker – that would be a condition of their release on bond.”

Sheriff Jeff Siegel said coordination between the jail position and the new officer will be critical.

Superior Court 4 Judge Gretchen Lund said there would be collaboration between the two positions, but the new officer has to be able to make certain assessments. The Indiana Risk Assessment System needs to be completed by a certified probation officer as one of the requirements of Criminal Rule 26, she noted.

She added that there could also be collaboration with the drug court program that operates out of her court. She said things like addictions assessments and drug tests can be made a condition of someone’s bond, and if they don’t comply, the state can petition the court to take another look and decide if the person should be in custody after all.

“So it gives them the opportunity, kind of that carrot at the end of the stick, to get started in their rehabilitation services prior to ever having their case adjudicated or resolved,” Lund said. “It will also work really closely with the problem solving court because there will obviously be that person to identify to put them into the system for problem solving, as opposed to just a regular sort of system.”

Councilman John Letherman observed shortly ahead of the vote that more than 300 people in the jail need help with issues like drugs and alcohol.

“This is a way to fix that, so they get on the right track,” he said. “We’re not in the business of just ruining people’s lives if they make a mistake, and I think that’s what this will help.”

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