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Federal judge hears update on Allen County jail issues

FILE PHOTO: Rebecca Green
The current Allen County jail is headed for replacement amid concerns about overcrowding and safety.

Staff vacancies remain a problem in the Allen County Jail as county officials work to meet the short-term solutions to overcrowding and violence.

Those issues were the subject of a federal court order from earlier in the year.

In response to that order, Allen County officials are moving forward with plans to construct a new jail on the city’s far east side.

On Thursday, the Allen County Council gave its stamp of approval for the funding for purchase of 2911 Meyer Road as the site of a criminal justice center with more beds, spaces for medical and mental health treatment, and exercise.

That site is the home of the old International Harvester plant, and it has drawn less community criticism than earlier proposed locations.

But a local coalition of advocates, known as Help Not Handcuffs, want the county to spend those tens of millions of dollars on alternatives to incarceration rather than a bigger, brighter jail.

In a hearing Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty, attorneys for county agencies expressed ongoing concerns about staff numbers in spite of some new hires, better pay, and financial incentives.

So did the judge, calling it a problem that has to be solved.

Help Not Handcuffs have offered the most public pushback against Allen County’s proposal for a new jail.

What started largely as an opposition to the site selected early on is now more loudly geared to driving the conversation toward alternatives to incarceration.

Represented by attorney Diana Bauer, the group appeared as a friend of the court during Friday's hearing on the status of ongoing issues at the Allen County Jail and potential solutions for those problems.

The “Care First, Jail Last” goal advocated by the group doesn’t involve the construction of a new jail, but the addition of programs and alternatives to keep the population down in the aging, current facility by other means.

On Friday, Bauer asked Leichty to create a commission to help their perspective be better heard by the county officials.

Bauer said they were provided six to seven pages of information about the county's alternatives to incarceration, but didn't have enough information regarding the amount of funding received, as well as the programs' efficacy.

She asked the judge to help make such reports more readily available.

Leichty rejected that, saying he has no authority to dictate whether the county is required to share information or build a jail.

He urged the group to continue with dialogue with county agencies involved in criminal justice, and to ask themselves for the information they want.

Also on Friday, Allen County Commissioners saw a preliminary design of the new jail. The concept showed the building at its largest possible size - 490,000 square feet and up to 1,500 beds. The presentation only included renderings shown to the Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals and did not include engineering details of any kind of final proposal.

The next step in the process, pending the finalization of the sale of the property, is a hearing for a contingent use of the property before the Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals. That hearing could come in January.

The next federal court hearing on the progress addressing the constitutional issues of safety and overcrowding at the current jail will be in June.

WBOI Reporter Tony Sandleben contributed to this story.

Rebecca manages the news at WBOI. She joined the staff in December 2017, and brought with her nearly two decades of experience in print journalism, including 15 years as an award-winning reporter for the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne.