‘Either act or answer:’ Federal judge demands solution in fight over new Allen County jail, sets funding deadline

Published: Oct. 11, 2023 at 11:49 AM EDT
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ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WPTA) - Leaders in Allen County met with a U.S. District Court judge Wednesday for a status conference on efforts to build a new county jail.

In March 2022, Judge Damon Leichty found in favor of plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit addressing myriad deficiencies at the Allen County Jail. His order demanded swift action by the sheriff and the county commissioners to address concerns that included overcrowding, staffing, and the treatment of inmates.

BACKGROUND: New Allen County Jail Updates

Allen County Commissioners said to properly address these issues, they want to build a new jail. But in order to do so, the county council will need to approve an increase in the county’s income tax to help pay for its construction.

In July, the county voted against the increase. Then on September 20, the council voted to postpone a second vote on the measure so they could go over relevant information. They told us they were still missing some necessary information.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Judge Leichty said the county needs to “either act or answer”, saying a definitive solution needs to be reached.

For the first time, the president of Allen County Council Tom Harris and the council’s attorney, Mitch Harper, spoke before the court. The judge asked why the funding had not been approved for the new jail. County leaders say some councilmen had questions that had not been answered and were wanting to see alternatives for building a new jail.

That did not sit well with the judge, who questioned why the council would approve the purchase of the land for the new jail, but not the funding to build the jail itself. Attorney Harper then presented a letter from Allen County Superior Court Judge Fran Gull and read portions of it to the court. In that letter, she states that replacing the entire jail is “unnecessary.”

Once the letter was read, Judge Leichty then had the court bring up a graph onto the screens in the courtroom. On that graph was data that showed the inmate population from when he first issued his order to the beginning of this October. The jail is currently close to its limit of 732 inmates and he fears the number will rise.

Judge Leichty was pleased with the increase of officers working inside the jail and that the number of recreation had gone up to 4 hours a week for inmates.

Attorney Ken Falk of the Indiana ACLU told the judge he was “at a loss for words,” and while he was grateful for what the sheriff had done to make improvements, he told the judge inmates were still having their rights violated.

The attorney for Help Not Handcuffs stood in front of the judge. She said commissioners were still not transparent with the group and citizens. Following that statement, the judge called a sidebar, filling the room with static as the attorneys and judge put on headphones to talk.

After the group’s discussion, the judge came back and told the county that “you either act or you answer” and that a solution needs to be reached. If the county chooses to answer, Judge Leichty says the community won’t like the answer. He then declined to set another hearing date.

October 31 is the last day for the county to pass funding that would legally begin on January 1, 2024. If funding is not passed, Falk says one or more of the following can happen.

  • Allen County Council can be added to the current lawsuit.
  • A new lawsuit with the county council could be filed and then merged with the current lawsuit.
  • Three judges would be called to hold a panel and determine which inmates could be let out of the jail. A cap on how many inmates allowed inside the jail could be placed.

The third option has never happened in the state of Indiana but has happened in other states, leaders say.

The judge has asked Falk to submit a status report on November 1 to see if funding has been passed and the next steps. If funding is not secured by that date, construction of the jail could be delayed by at least six months, pushing the opening date to 2028 or 2029.

Allen County Council has an executive session scheduled for Friday, October 13. Their next regular meeting will be on Thursday, October 19, to discuss the budget for 2024. While the income tax vote to pay for the jail is not on the agenda, officials say it could be added.

Tune in tonight at 5 and 6 for a full report from 21Alive’s Taylor Williams.

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