PRINCETON — It's a big year for the county's court system.
Gibson Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Meade and Gibson Superior Court Judge Robert Krieg are tasked with getting a new pre-trial probation program off the ground and improving courthouse security. And, they want to create a new magistrate program and explore the creation of a public defender program.
Meade and Krieg asked the Gibson County Council Tuesday to advertise an additional appropriation of $71,000 to allow them to pay a new pre-trial services director, who is charged with assessing every person arrested on a charge involving bond in order to comply with new state regulations.
Judge Krieg told the council that the county is required to begin assessments of people arrested on charges requiring bail in order to determine whether they need to be in jail while awaiting trial or whether they can be free on probation — and how that probation may be implemented. The new pre-trial services director is charged with making those assessments, and Krieg noted that some of the counties in 11 pilot programs around the state use as many as three people to accomplish the tasks. "We are not trying to build some kind of government empire here," Krieg told the council, but he said the county needs at least one person in order to begin compliance.
While there was some speculation that the new program could reduce the number of inmates at the county jail level, Krieg told the council he's not sure it will have a lasting effect of lowing jail census levels. "Initially, I think the jail population might go down, but I think it could go back up" when some individuals don't comply with pre-trial probation conditions, he explained.
Krieg said the program's impact will likely show less bond revenue collected. Bond is often used to pay for pauper attorney fees and post-conviction probation costs. "It will be an issue with our budgets for years to come," he said.
The assessment process may also be required for writs of attachment issued for failure to appear. Judge Meade said that issue is still under study.
In addition to asking the council to appropriate more money to fund the new position, the judges asked to fill the vacancy created in the probation department by transferring a probation officer to the pre-trial assessment director position.
Krieg, Meade and County Attorney Jim McDonald testified in Indianapolis last week, making their case for a third court system here. Krieg said Tuesday that the program will likely be funded to begin in January or July of 2021.
A magistrate is a licensed attorney who would act as a judge, under the supervision of the two elected judges. The state would pay for the salary and benefits for a magistrate.
The two judges also told the council that they've asked local attorney Lisa Moody to explore the feasibility of a public defender program for the county. The judges said that creating a public defender program could allow the county to capture up to 40 percent of the expense of pauper attorney services. The county pays local attorneys to provide legal defense for clients who qualify as indigent and has historically used bond that is posted to help defray some of that expense.
Moody reported that she's working with the state to get more details on the impact for Gibson County, but noted that 60 of the state's 92 counties already participate in the program. "I don't know of any scenario where this does not save us money," Moody told the council.
Krieg reported that work continues on the courthouse security plan mandated by the state. He said that he and Judge Meade submitted a report to the state and a committee is meeting Jan. 23 to further explore ways to comply with requirements. The requirements may include staffing an entrance with a law enforcement officer and require an architect to design any security changes since the courthouse is considered an historic building. "We haven't come to any conclusions yet," he reported. "We're behind in some areas," he said, but confirmed that the county has applied for a $400,000 grant that could cover some of the cost.