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'People are hungry': Indiana prosecutor puts food pantry in courthouse building

Harrison County Prosecutor Otto Schalk found reform and recovery was too much to ask for, when many defendants don't know where they'll find their next meal.

HARRISON COUNTY, Ind. — The Indiana Constitution mandates that the criminal justice system is built upon reformation and provides opportunities for defendants to choose a better path forward. But, are the penalties helping or hurting?

Harrison County Prosecutor Otto Schalk is putting himself inside the system, by living through the probation program he's been handing out and making changes.

 Recently, Schalk focused on the impacts of hunger in his work.

"One of the reoccurring themes we keep hearing- people are hungry," Schalk said. 

In Indiana, one in eight people face hunger, including about 240,000 children, according to 'Feeding America'. Last year, Harrison County Community Services provided 1.2 million pounds of food to local families in need. Schalk said the impacts of hunger carry into courthouse walls every day. 

"We have probation officers that bring in Pop-Tarts for people and that’s a reward for someone," he explained. 

His concern is defendants aren't able to face reform or recovery without first finding solutions to meet their most basic needs.

"When you're coming into this building, we want you to be focusing on getting better. If it's seeking recovery, if it's seeking justice, that's what we want your focus to be on. We don't want your focus to be on 'How am I going to go to bed not hungry tonight?'" Schalk said. 

In response to the need, Schalk started a community food drive. He planned to offer non-perishable items to those who found themselves in the courthouse for whatever reason. But the response was so great, he was able to take it a step further and build a food pantry. 

The pantry is overflowing outside of the box, and onto a table inside the front door of the Harrison County Justice Center. That means, it's only steps away from the jail, sheriff's department, courthouse and probation office.

"Out of everything we've ever done here this is one of the most insightful things and probably the most humbling things we've ever done. Just understanding where we've been missing the mark and we've missed it a lot if we're being honest," Schalk said.

But he is working to the right the wrongs and has already made real changes to his county's probation department, including rewriting plea agreements to include language mandating a meeting with a GED program if the defendants don’t have a degree or a job. 

Also, he launched "Project Green light" which is a partnership with the public defender's office that offers education, waives fees and makes plans to get drivers with suspended licenses back on the roads.

"If we do nothing, they'll end up back in jail. If we keep them in jail, we are subjecting them to harm that may not be needed," Schalk said. 

WHAS11 has exclusive access to this project and will be documenting the breakdowns, challenges and changes as the prosecutor team discovers them.

To keep up with Schalk's year-long project, visit his Facebook page.

►Have a story tip? Contact the FOCUS Investigative team at FOCUS@whas11.com

►Contact reporter Shay McAlister at smcalister@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@WHAS11Shay) and Facebook.

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