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Sentencing reforms stir worry

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When the Hancock County Jail and the community corrections center are near capacity, as they were one day last spring, officials have no place to house fresh prisoners. Now that new guidelines call for low-level felony offenders to be housed in counties instead of state prisons, officials are bracing for a bottleneck of inmates.

(Daily Reporter file photo)
When the Hancock County Jail and the community corrections center are near capacity, as they were one day last spring, officials have no place to house fresh prisoners. Now that new guidelines call for low-level felony offenders to be housed in counties instead of state prisons, officials are bracing for a bottleneck of inmates. (Daily Reporter file photo)

GREENFIELD — The Indiana criminal code is set for a major overhaul July 1, and local authorities are working feverishly to realign resources in advance of the fast-approaching deadline.

The new code changes everything from how crimes are classified to how those who commit them can be sentenced.

But perhaps most notably, it shifts the burden of housing lower-level offenders from state prisons to local facilities by making fewer defendants eligible to be sent to the Indiana Department of Correction.

With the Hancock County Jail at or near capacity on most days and little room available in the neighboring work-release facility, the impending change has many officials wondering how the county will cope.

The most immediate solution is to shift offenders out of local facilities to create more room; for example, moving inmates from work-release to home detention, where they will not take up county bed space.

That doesn’t sit well with some in the criminal justice system.

“We are going to be allowing people who have done very undesirable things to run free because the state does not want to build another prison,” said Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin, who gave a presentation this week to the Greenfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “Basically, the state has told us, ‘You’re going to keep them in your backyard, not our backyard.’”

The impact of the changes is hard to quantify, but recent statistics on Hancock County convictions offer a hint.

In 2013, 53 people were convicted in county courts of lower-level felonies and were sent to state prisons. Under the new rules, most of those would have to serve their sentences here.


A major overhaul


The criminal code has undergone minor revisions over the years, but July marks the first complete overhaul since 1977. And local officials say it’s going to be an adjustment at all stages of the criminal justice system.

For example, when police arrest a person on a felony charge after July 1, they will no longer recommend charges classified as Class A through D offenses. The new code breaks felony charges down into six levels, with a Level 1 felony being the most serious. Murder remains in a class of its own, above the leveled felonies.

When a person pleads guilty to an offense, prosecutors will have a new set of guidelines to follow when recommending a sentence.

It’s difficult to make an overarching statement about how the sentencing statutes are changing, Griffin said, noting they vary depending on the offense.

Many drug possession offenses – even those with large amounts of drugs involved – have been dropped to a misdemeanor, which carries a relatively light penalty. Sentences resulting from drug cases may be suspended entirely, meaning there is the option of letting an offender go free without serving time.

“You can have 9 pounds of marijuana, (and if you) have a clean record, it is not a felony,” Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tami Napier cited by way of example.

On the other hand, offenders who are headed to jail or prison will serve longer sentences overall, thanks to a change in the way credit is handed out for good behavior.

Currently, many offenders receive a day’s credit for each day they serve with good behavior, so they become eligible for release after serving half their sentence.

On the whole, offenders will serve 75 percent of their sentence after July 1.


Officials seek help


Hancock County Community Corrections director Pat Powers appeared before the county council in May and again before the council‘s budget committee this week to stress his need for additional staff to meet the coming influx of defendants.

Currently, the county has the option to send Class D felons to state prisons, but under the new law, that won’t be the case.

“All Class D and, to some extent, Class C felons are being reclassified as Level Six,” Powers told the council last month. “The way it’s worded, … it will be near impossible to send a Level Six prisoner to the state.”

Powers told the council the jail was at 115 percent capacity last month. Couple that with a nearly full work-release program, and county officials will either need to find a different place to put new offenders, or expand the county’s electronic-monitoring program.

Powers reiterated that sentiment Tuesday to the budget committee, which makes recommendations to the council.

“We don’t have any room in work release for additional people,” Powers said. “The sheriff’s jail is pretty full.”

The most practical approach is to move offenders on work-release, who are housed at community corrections but allowed to leave the facility for work, to electronic monitoring.

Electronic monitoring involves homing devices worn by offenders. The devices put out a signal that can be tracked. Ostensibly, the offenders’ whereabouts are known at all times.

But expanding the program will require at least one additional field officer to keep tabs on those offenders, Powers stressed. Powers said the cost for another staff member is estimated at just over $67,442. The figure includes equipment and insurance.

“I don’t want the officer-to-offender ratio to get so high that we’re not effective in monitoring,” he said.

Judge Terry Snow of Hancock County Superior Court 1 appeared before the county council meeting in May alongside Powers to stress the need for immediate provisions.

If offenders moved to home-detention aren’t properly monitored, the public could be at risk, Snow said.

“You don’t want somebody on the community corrections that you do not monitor where you have people out here who end up getting in trouble – robberies, rapes, and you get those kinds of things,” Snow said. “If we don’t monitor them, you’re just asking for a time bomb to go off.”

Snow said law enforcement officials had asked the state Legislature to delay implementation of the new law until July 1, 2015, but it didn’t happen.

“You’re getting short notice because we’re getting short notice,” Snow told the council.

This week, the budget committee agreed to recommend at next week’s budget hearings that Powers receive funding for another field officer. The council will likely look to local-option income tax funds to pay the officer’s salary.

But that allocation is a temporary fix for a problem that will grow, Powers said. As more offenders are kept locally, he will be forced to ask for additional staff or risk increasing the officer-to-offender level to a potentially unsafe ratio.

“This is just the beginning,” he said.

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