TERRE HAUTE —
Some Vigo County officials agree that Indiana’s criminal code is long overdue for an overhaul, and they are watching the progress of proposed legislation now moving through the Statehouse.
The proposal requires more prison time for the most-serious crimes and directs more people convicted of low-level felonies into community corrections programs rather than prison. It also would restructure the current four levels of felony penalties into a six-level felony penalty classification.
“A lot of this is driven by concerns about how much we’re spending incarcerating people,” said Michael Rader, judge of Vigo Superior Court 5, who spoke to the Tribune-Star on Wednesday about House Bill 1006.
The proposed legislation addresses many concerns highlighted two years ago in a state-commissioned report by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center. That report looked heavily at costs of housing inmates in the Indiana Department of Correction.
Judge David Bolk in Vigo Superior Court 3 agrees that changes are needed to the earned credit time formula.
Bolk said he was surprised to learn recently that a Vigo County man who the judge had sentenced in 2008 to 18 years in prison on three separate burglary convictions will be released from prison in summer 2013. Bolk said he sentenced the man to six years on each count, to be served consecutively, noting that the offender also violated his parole from a previous burglary conviction when he earned the new criminal charges.
The judge thought that the man was looking at serving nine years in prison under the one-day-of-credit-for-every-day-served system. However, the DOC gave the offender a four-year time cut because he earned two college degrees while incarcerated.
Bolk said that a two-year credit was given to the inmate for earning an associate’s degree, and then the offender received another two-year credit for continuing on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the same area. If the man had sought a bachelor’s degree in the first place, he would have received only one two-year time cut.
Bolk also noted that the four-year time cut was not on the total 18-year sentence, but applies to the offender’s earliest possible release date, so the man will end up serving only about five years of an 18-year sentence.
Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt said that time credits need to be consistent, as well. While it benefits society when an inmate gets an education or vocational training while incarcerated, he said he sees random reasons applied by DOC to credit time.
“It takes sentencing out of the hands of the prosecutor and the judge,” Modesitt said. “We are the ones on the local level who decide how much time we think a person should spend in prison, but the DOC can change it. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
One of his concerns with the legislation, Modesitt said, is that the changes are aimed at solving statewide prison and jail overcrowding.
“I don’t want to change the law just to let people out of jail,” he said.
Judge Rader said he hopes legislators will allow community comment on the sentencing issue, because the people at the local level know what helps their communities deal with offenders.
For instance, the local drug court system has been successful in rehabilitating people at the local level, keeping low-level drug offenders out of the jail and prisons, which don’t always offer rehab programs. However, funding for such community-based programs is always in danger.
“Just putting someone in jail or prison doesn’t always solve the problem,” Rader said, noting that Indiana’s Constitution calls for a reformative, not punitive, corrections system. And the policy of being “tough on crime” is not always best for society.
“We went through a period where we were all taught that people ought to go to prison on drug offenses,” he said. “But what we really need is to give people an avenue to get off drugs. I think the drug court program has been effective. We’ve seen a lot of people turn their lives around. It’s a program that works.”
Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing said the Indiana Sheriff’s Association is keeping a close eye on the legislation, acknowledging that an overhaul is needed.
“It’s like a company directory that you never change, but you just keep adding names to it,” Ewing said of the ever-expanding criminal code, which was last retooled in 1977.
He said there has been some concern that returning the low-level offenders in DOC to the county jails will increase jail overcrowding statewide. He said that for Vigo County, that will mean about 30 people being returned, which is substantial, but not debilitating. However, for Vanderburgh County, that could mean 300 returned.
Ewing said he sees the court system working with the prosecutor and defense attorneys to get the low-level offenders moved from the jail into the community corrections program, where the offenders can serve their sentence locally. However, there are still those repeat offenders assigned to community corrections who just can’t make it through their sentence without picking up additional charges, so those low-level offenders do get sent to the DOC, he said.
One ramification of a law overhaul will be training for police.
“When they finally decide and pass all of this, there will be a lot of re-educating and changes for all law enforcement,” Ewing said. “On a daily basis, there are some things we do a lot, such as write traffic tickets. We will have to make sure we are up to date and cite the correct code.”
Prosecutor Modesitt agreed that training will be essential following any law change.
“The prosecutor’s office provides some of the training to law enforcement,” he said. “They [police] have to make sure the arrest is done right in the first place, so that we can build a good case. It takes a lot of teamwork.”
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.