Police, judges and the prosecutor will be closely watching what happens next month when a new law begins that could result in offenders serving less time in prison and more time in the county jail.
Starting July 1, the state will begin using a new system for classifying felony crimes, such as rape, burglary, drug dealing and theft. Legislators reduced penalties for several crimes and limited which convicted felons can be sent to state prisons.
Under the new system, a person making a small amount of methamphetamine would go to prison for a maximum of only six years instead of 20, and someone caught for the first time with painkillers that aren’t prescribed to them no longer would be charged with a felony.
A person convicted of theft and sentenced to probation who fails a drug test won’t serve time in a state prison and instead will be sent to jail.
All of those changes mean people convicted of crimes generally will spend less time behind bars, Prosecutor Brad Cooper and Sheriff Doug Cox said. And those convicted of the most common crimes, such as drug possession and theft, often will serve their sentences in local programs or the county jail.
“The penalties have gone down, and I don’t understand what the point was,” Cooper said. “All they’ve done is taken away some of the discretion from the judges on how to put away the worst of the worst. All this has done is lowered the penalties for the high side, for the worst people.”
State lawmakers said the new law better defines certain crimes, gives judges more flexibility, including being able to sentence offenders to community corrections or probation, and creates more opportunities for offenders to earn credit from education and rehabilitation programs.
The changes also are expected to remove 3,800 people from state prison and save Indiana $12.5 million by 2020. The new legislation was approved in the General Assembly earlier this year, but on Tuesday state lawmakers returned for a one-day meeting to correct problems.
Mistakes discovered would have reduced sentences for some convicted sex offenders and also made it harder for police to arrest people suspected of theft and shoplifting. State lawmakers unanimously approved the corrections.
Currently, felonies are divided into four classes, which determine minimum and maximum sentences. Class A felonies are for the most serious crimes, such as rape. The lowest level, Class D felonies, are for less-serious crimes, such as theft.
State lawmakers changed the system so felonies are divided into six categories, and every crime has been redefined under the new system. Now, some have different minimum and maximum sentences.
For example, manufacturing less than 3 grams of methamphetamine currently is a Class B felony, punishable by a minimum of six years in prison. Under the new system, that same charge will be a Level 5 felony, with a minimum sentence of one year.
Impact on jail
For some of the changes, legislators are trying to better define penalties based on the danger that is posed to society, Johnson County Superior Court 3 Judge Lance Hamner said. For
example, a person manufacturing meth in a 20-ounce bottle for themselves isn’t as much of a danger as someone mass-
producing it to sell, he said. Under the current system, someone who produces 3.1 grams of the drug would face the same charge as someone who made 30 grams, but the new definition has tiers depending on how much and where the drug is made.
Also under the new law, offenders convicted of low-level felonies, such as theft or a second marijuana offense, cannot be sentenced to prison. About 150 offenders convicted of low-level felonies in Johnson County are sent to prison each year — often because they violate probation.
The new law will allow offenders to be sentenced to prison for a probation violation only if they commit a new crime, which makes up about a third of the probation violations in Johnson County.
That change is worrying Cox, who this week had about 300 inmates in the jail, which is meant to hold a maximum of 322. If the new law requires offenders to serve their sentences for low-
level felonies, probation violations and misdemeanors in the county jail, the average daily number of inmates could increase by 50 to 100 people, he said. Jail overcrowding puts the county at risk of being sued if inmates get sick or hurt, he said.
The changes will mean fewer people in overcrowded state prisons but will instead bring the problem to county jails, Cooper and Cox said.
“We don’t know what to expect. I’m obviously concerned because, in my opinion, there is going to be increased numbers in the jail and numbers that are going to be over and above what we can hold,” Cox said.
The law offers alternatives to jail, such as diversion programs where people don’t face imprisonment if they don’t commit a new crime within a period of time. Cooper is hesitant about using that option in felony cases because often a person would need to be a repeat offender in order to face a felony charge, he said.
For example, people caught with synthetic marijuana wouldn’t be charged with a felony unless they had a previous drug conviction.
The law would give more funding to local probation and community corrections programs because more offenders could be sentenced to probation or programs including work release and home detention.
But when people fail a drug test, miss a probation meeting or don’t return to the work release on time, they end up back in the county jail, Cox said.
To battle overcrowding, a person who misses a probation meeting or fails an alcohol test one time in the future might not be sent to jail as they would now, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.
Loyd oversees the probation department and has asked caseworkers to develop a new system of penalties for probation violations to try to lower the number of people who would be sent to jail.
That also means judges won’t be able to deliver as strict a message to offenders about the seriousness of probation but could give people another chance if they make a mistake, Loyd said.
“Violate and you’re going to jail. It’s the easiest to understand. I’ve done it for years,” he said.
The lower penalties are also a concern to police. If offenders aren’t put away for long periods of time, Cox is worried they won’t be deterred from returning home and committing new crimes.
For example, a man convicted of a felony drug charge in Marion County last year was put on home detention.
When police raided his house less than a year later as part of a local drug investigation after a Center Grove area teenager died, officers found large amounts of heroin, prescription medication, blotter paper used to ingest drugs and other items used to make drugs, such as pill makers.
“He’s got a plethora of narcotics in his house. How much more contemptible can that be?” Cox said.
Greenwood Police Department assistant chief Matt Fillenwarth advises officers to not obsess over the sentence a person eventually gets, since state law already offers multiple chances for a person to reduce the sentence with good behavior and educational programs.