By Jessica Karins, Greenfield Daily Reporter
GREENFIELD — County officials are in dispute after the county’s prosecutor raised concerns that some defendants in the court system may be treated unfairly during sentencing because they are not fluent English speakers.
Prosecutor Brent Eaton is advocating for general sentencing guidelines that would help avoid the issue of unequal punishment, but other officials say there is no need for a policy change.
Eaton initially raised the concern with the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, saying some defendants may be rejected from participating in the Hancock County Community Corrections program, rather than serving jail time, because the county is not equipped to provide them services in their native language. At Eaton’s request, the county commissioners sent a letter on the subject to community corrections.
The letter was presented to the Hancock County Corrections Board at its most recent meeting, along with a list of potential guidelines.
“The commissioners are concerned the current assessment for individual qualification and participation is not uniform, and is arbitrary and too subjective,” the letter said. “The lack of certainty in deciding who qualifies for community corrections is not conducive to the just and expedient resolution of criminal cases in the county.”
A list of possible guidelines the board considered included factors like the severity of the pending charges, past criminal history, past-due fees with community corrections and stability of residence.
Hancock County Circuit Court Judge Scott Sirk objected, however, saying community corrections currently does not make any decisions about who is placed into the program. Because the county’s work-release program has been suspended due to COVID-19, Sirk said, all decisions made are about whether defendants qualify for home detention, and those determinations are made by judges.
The board of corrections voted to table the guidelines and referred the matter to the county commissioners. It was discussed again at their meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 19.
“Everyone in community corrections was ordered there by a judge,” Sirk said at the commissioners’ meeting. “…There’s nothing we can do to assist you guys with this letter.”
Sirk, who was joined at the meeting by fellow judges Dan Marshall and D.J. Davis, said judges making sentencing decisions will take into account input on a defendant they receive from community corrections officials, the same way they will review input from the prosecutor, defendant and the victim, if there is one.
“They often know the defendant better than I do,” he said.
However, Sirk said, the judges make the final decision.
Sirk said community corrections is often able to accommodate Spanish speakers by requesting help from Marion County corrections personnel, but they can’t always do that if the person in question speaks a language that isn’t widely spoken in Indiana.
“If we get a Swahili speaker in there, I’m not going to be able to accommodate them on community corrections,” he said. “We accommodate to the extent that we can.”
After hearing Sirk’s arguments, the commissioners agreed there was no need for revised guidelines at the current time, and said the issue should have been addressed directly with the corrections board.
Community corrections director Wade Kennedy said he believed the matter could be considered settled, saying the board of corrections would not take any further action on sentencing guidelines for the time being, at least until work release resumes.
“I feel like everybody’s on the same page now,” Kennedy said.
That’s not the case for Eaton. From the prosecutor’s perspective, he said, there’s no getting around the fact that changes have to be made to accommodate a growing non-English-speaking population. The courts, he said, are obligated to make fair and equitable decisions at all times, in every case.
Eaton said the prosecutor’s office will be happy to work with other parts of the criminal justice system to make that happen, but more resources will likely have to be allocated to make it possible.
“There may be some costs with it, but it’s necessary,” he said.
Eaton said he hopes the corrections board will still decide to adopt the proposed guidelines. Many other communities, including Rush and Hamilton counties, have similar protocols in place, he said.
“(Having standardized guidelines) helps us to make good, objective decisions that are congruent with the obligations we have,” he said.
Marie Castetter, a former Hancock County judge who has worked as a prosecutor and is now a defense attorney, said she didn’t observe any sentencing disparities during her time with the county courts between those who are native English speakers and those who aren’t. However, she said, the issue does pose a challenge.
“It is difficult for a lot of courts to be able to provide those types of services,” she said.
In order to provide translation for the court, an individual must be a certified court interpreter, and those are not easy to find. Castetter said the county courts currently have one person who can provide Spanish translation, and that person provides the service in other counties and isn’t available every day of the week.
“The system can always use more resources,” Castetter said.