News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 5, 2014

Concerns over biz tax, criminal code

Officials to have plate full as legislative session is set to begin this week

INDIANAPOLIS — County sheriffs and prosecutors hope to stall new criminal sentences from taking effect amid worries over costs and criticisms that some of the new punishments are too soft.

Set to start July 1, the sentencing reform law lowers penalties for drug and theft crimes, and increases prison time for sex and violent offenders. The law of more than 400 pages, which passed last April, rewrites the state’s 1977 felony criminal code.

But members of the Indiana Sheriff’s Association say they’re worried that communities won’t get extra money for treatment programs to handle low-level offenders diverted by the law from state prisons.

And prosecutors around the state complain that the reforms go too easy on those who commit certain drug offenses. A sentence for a drug-dealing crime that now carries a standard 10-year prison term could be reduced to two years under the law.

“We can’t lower penalties on these all these drug offenses and expect that we’re going to be safer,” said Aaron Negangard, the prosecutor for Dearborn and Ohio counties who serves on the board of the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council. “Drug abuse drives most of the crime. If we allow penalties for those who are dealing drugs to be significantly reduced — while not offering any services for drug abusers — it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The law’s implementation was already delayed until this summer by the Legislature because of various issues, including the unknown impact on prisons and local corrections programs. For example, the reforms give judges more discretion to send low-level offenders with addictions or mental illness to local treatment programs.

But the law came with no funding for those services.

Supporters of the reforms — including House Judiciary Chairman Greg Steuerwald of Avon — promised to find money before the law takes effect. Their search may be complicated since legislative leaders have signaled reluctance to reopening the state’s two-year budget in an off year.

Complicating matters more are local concerns that the GOP-controlled Legislature will follow Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s direction when it convenes Monday and eliminate the business personal property tax — a source of nearly $1 billion a year in local funding.

“If we keep losing revenue while having these unfunded mandates dropped on us, we just can’t keep providing the services we need to provide,” said Boone County Sheriff Ken Campbell, president-elect of sheriffs’ association.

Another unknown cost: The law changes “good behavior” credits for serious offenders serving prison time. Most will have to serve 75 percent of their sentence to be eligible for those credits — up from 50 percent.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brent Steele of Bedford, the influential Republican who co-authored the sentencing reform, said longer sentences won’t hit prisons with added costs all at once. Steele said he sees no need for a delay.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting to toughen sentences for those who’ve committed violent crimes and for sex offenders.

Republican Sen. Randy Head of Logansport, who is calling for mandatory sentences for sex offenders, said he would vote to delay. “It’s better to take our time and do it right, then to get it done in a hurry just for the sake of saying we did it,” he said.

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

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