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February 26, 2014

Vigo judges waiting for final rewrite of Criminal Code

TERRE HAUTE — It’s still too early to determine what impact changes to Indiana’s Crime Code Revision bill will have on the court system in Vigo County.

Speaking Wednesday about the ongoing “sausage-making session” of the 2014 legislative session, Vigo Superior Court Judge David Bolk said that because changes are still likely for House Bill 1006, it’s hard to predict what result the legislation will have on criminal sentencing.

“It’s really in a state of flux,” Bolk said of the Senate committee action.

While one of the original intents of sentencing reform – which hasn’t occurred for Indiana’s criminal code in almost four decades – was to have penalties more proportionate to the crime, the legislation may also give judges more latitude in deciding on a criminal sentence for each conviction.

“Ultimately, we don’t know what the results will be at this time,” Bolk said. “If the goal is to save the state money by not building a new prison, by making counties deal with the low-level nonviolent offenders, the state needs to send funding to provide programs to keep these people out of trouble.”

Vigo County does a good job in dealing with convictions on a local level, he said, noting that defendants often get a chance to serve their sentences through the community corrections program before being shipped off to the Indiana Department of Correction. But as is the case with many defendants, they have often accumulated multiple criminal charges from multiple cases, and at some point, they become “non-suspendable,” according to the existing sentencing law.

“I think the more discretion the judges have in sentencing, the better,” Bolk said.

Judge Phil Adler agreed.

Though he does not handle criminal cases on the bench of Vigo Superior Court 2, in his previous years as county prosecutor, Adler said he could see the disparities in the state criminal code.

“I even said so when I was prosecutor, that sentences were out of whack,” Adler said.

Some of the drug offense penalties need to be re-examined and adjusted, he said, and judges should be given more discretion in sentencing.

One disparity in criminal charges occurs in the area of theft charges. A person who steals a $5 retail item faces the same penalty as a person who steals a $500 retail item, because both could be charged as a class-D felony, which carries a sentence of six months to three years behind bars.

No matter what sentencing reform occurs, Adler noted, the state’s prison doors are not going to suddenly swing open and unload prisoners back into the county jails and community corrections programs. So the reform is unlikely to have any immediate relief for the state’s prison population.

For Vigo County, however, the reform effort to sentence low-level nonviolent offenders to local programs can stress the local justice system if no state funding comes with it, Bolk said. And, the county is still battling its own jail overcrowding issue.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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