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May 3, 2014

New sentencing laws prompt worries across Indiana

Many fear change will increase jail overcrowding

INDIANAPOLIS — After 40 years in law enforcement, Franklin County Sheriff Ken Murphy knows what doesn’t work when it comes to reducing crime: locking up non-violent offenders whose petty crimes are driven by addiction.

In his jail in rural southeastern Indiana, Murphy sees the same people showing up, collecting a string of offenses — from shoplifting to probation violation — tied to drugs and alcohol. In Murphy’s estimation, 95 percent of the jail’s inmates are there because of chronic problems with substance abuse.

So when the Indiana General Assembly passed a sweeping sentencing reform bill aimed at diverting those low-level offenders out of state prisons and into community-based programs, Murphy endorsed the concept.

But as questions continue over who will pay for the new law, Murphy opposes its implementation. He fears it could result in cost-shifting from state to local government, and that without adequate resources, low-level offenders will end up back where they started — in prison.

“I know we don’t have what we need in Franklin County to make this work,” Murphy said.

Big changes

Indiana’s new sentencing laws, contained in House Enrolled Act 1006, are set to bring dramatic changes to the way punishment is doled out for crime.  

For the worst offenders, guilty of violent and sex crimes, it increases prison sentences and reduces the early-release credits earned for good behavior.

But it also reduces the penalties for non-violent, low-level crimes. It does away with mandatory prison terms for some repeat offenders, and it gives judges more discretion to put people on probation, order them into treatment, or send them into existing community-based correction programs. It forces another major change: When the new laws go into effect July 1, offenders sentenced to 90 days or less of incarceration will be banned from the state prisons. On July 1, 2015, that jumps to a sentence of one year or less.

Lawmakers who backed the bill are convinced it will reverse a rising prison population, which has jumped 40 percent since 2000. The state Department of Correction now spends about $618 million a year to house about 30,000 prisoners.

“I think the DOC will be able to close a prison within a decade if enough people really buy into this concept,” said State Rep. Jud McMillin, a Franklin County Republican legislator who carried the legislation in the House.  

Across Indiana, local law enforcement officials fear the legislation will end up as a cost-shifting measure, doomed to fail.

Why? Because when the legislation was passed, it came with minimal funding: It authorizes up to $11 million to pay counties to provide “evidence-based” services that reduce recidivism. But the money is available only if the state prison numbers go down.

That assumption is in dispute: Last year, as details of the legislation were being debated, officials with the Indiana Department of Correction warned the Legislature that longer sentences for the worst offenders will drive up the prison population.

“No one believes we’ll see any new money from the state,” Murphy said. “That’s just not going to happen.”


on numbers

It’s unclear how many offenders will be diverted out of state prisons when the new sentencing legislation goes into effect. But a January study, done for the Legislature by the American Institutes for Research, predicts the impact on local communities will be significant.

The study estimates more than 14,000 offenders could be diverted out of state prisons and back into local communities every year if judges take full advantage of the new sentencing rules.

The study authors also found many communities aren’t ready: Many, especially in rural counties, lack access to treatment programs for addicts. Others have community corrections programs already operating at or near capacity. The study found less than 25 percent of Indiana’s county jails have the capacity to “fully absorb” the impact of the new sentencing laws.

Franklin County is among the least prepared. It’s one of seven Indiana counties without a state-funded community corrections program. Currently, the only local addiction treatment program offered to offenders are weekly Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. And by state standards, its jail is understaffed, which puts the county at risk for being sued.

Murphy would like options to keep more local offenders out of the state prisons. But because of a $1.5 million shortfall in the county’s budget, Murphy has been ordered to cut costs 19 percent by the year’s end.

“This is a like a mathematic equation,” Murphy said. “There has to be all the elements in place to make it work. And right now, we have almost nothing.”

Fears statewide

Across Indiana, local officials who embrace the concept of sentencing reform express similar fears about the legislation’s implementation.

Bill Watson runs the community corrections program in Vigo County, where the crowded jail is under a court order to cap its numbers. One of the oldest community corrections programs in the state, it’s served thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders by keeping them out of prison and under local supervision. A critical goal of the program is to rehabilitate offenders to reduce recidivism. They do that by providing a range of services to help offenders turn their lives around.

But Watson, who’s also president of the Indiana Association of Community Corrections Act Counties, worries that goal will be harder to achieve. Most low-level offenders now in prison have a history of previous convictions and failed attempts at rehabilitation. According to DOC numbers, about 86 percent of Class D felons now in prison — offenders most likely to be diverted back into local communities under the new sentencing laws — are repeat offenders.

“We’ve seen the difference our program can make, Watson said. “But without the money to serve the people who come to us, we’re worried they’ll just violate the terms of their release or get re-arrested, and the courts will send them back to jail or prison.”

Legislators who pushed for the sentencing reform, including McMillin, also pushed for new funding from the state. But they were met with resistance from Statehouse fiscal leaders reluctant to re-open the state’s two-year budget plan. They’re hoping for more success next year, when lawmakers meet to craft the next biennial budget.

Those legislators also say it will take months before local communities start to feel the impact of the new sentencing laws.

Local officials counter that they’re already strapped. Linda Brady, president of the Probation Officers’ Professional Association of Indiana, known as POPAI, said local probation departments are critically understaffed as it is, with individual probation officers carrying caseloads of 200 to 300 offenders. “We’re already drowning now,” Brady said.  

Among her worries: The new sentencing laws forbid judges from sending low-level offenders into state prisons for violating the “technical” terms of their probation, such as failing a drug-test or missing a counseling appointment.

But in her community, the county jail isn’t an option: Routinely full, it’s under court order to cap its numbers. Brady said that leaves her local judges with few options.

“It will be a train wreck if the state doesn’t appropriately fund this,” Brady said. “It will be a public safety nightmare across the state.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen. hayden@indianamedia Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.


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    March 12, 2010