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'Act or answer' federal judge pressures Allen County Council to fund jail solution

Members of the Help Not Handcuffs Coalition have been vocal opponents of plans to expand or move the Allen County Jail.
File photo: Rebecca Green
Members of the Help Not Handcuffs Coalition have been vocal opponents of plans to expand or move the Allen County Jail.

U.S. District Court Judge Damon R. Leichty, the judge presiding over the federal lawsuit against Allen County for the conditions of its jail, told the Allen County government to “act or answer” at a federal hearing Wednesday.

It’s been 17 months since Leichty ruled the jail’s conditions as unconstitutional, due to its aging infrastructure and overcrowding.

As part of that ruling, Leichty ordered county officials to find a solution. For the better part of a year, the county has been working toward building a more than $300 million new jail as the solution.

In December, land that once housed part of the International Harvester plant was purchased in an industrial area between Fort Wayne and New Haven, and the commissioners and council went forward with a plan to purchase the property.

With a design in hand, all that was left so far was the financing.

In July, the Allen County Council failed to pass a funding proposal for construction of the new jail. The project has stalled ever since.

At Wednesday's hearing, Leichty questioned County Council President Tom Harris and the council’s attorney Mitch Harper directly about why the body did not pass a funding package.

Afterwards, Leichty said “the people will not like the answer” if the council does not fund the project or find a reasonable alternative and the court is forced to act.

Leichty gave the county until Nov. 1 to come up with a solution.

Harris, the only council member at Wednesday morning’s hearing, had a simple response.

“I understand that entirely,” Harris said.

Leichty did not specify what the court’s actions might entail. ACLU Legal Director Ken Falk said he, as the attorney for the plaintiff in the case, could file a motion to add the Allen County Council to the lawsuit as a third party defendant or file suit against the Allen County Council and merge the two cases together. Falk also said there’s a third option.

“If come Nov. 1, there’s still no funding and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be, we can ask for what’s called a prisoner for prisoner release order which would allow a three-judge court to determine that the population should be capped which mean that people simply could not be put in the jail,” Falk said.

Leichty praised Allen County Sheriff Troy Hershberger for “doing what he can with what he has.”

The next Allen County Council meeting is set for Oct. 19. The agenda for that meeting has not yet been released. Harris said if the council does not take up the funding issue at that meeting, it can schedule another meeting to do so before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Tony Sandleben joined the WBOI News team in September of 2022.