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New legislation could mean bigger jail population


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New legislation that would overhaul the state’s criminal code could put more people in jail and restart talks about an expansion.

The proposal would create new classifications for felony crimes and reduce penalties on some lower-level offenses. The changes likely would lead to more people being sentenced to time in local jails or work-release or home-detention programs, instead of state prison. After four years of discussion on the topic, the bill’s author expects lawmakers to approve the proposal this year.

Johnson County sends about 150 people to prison each year for Class D felonies, such as drug possession and theft. If the county is required to keep more of those offenders, that could lead to overcrowding at the jail and force officials to again discuss a possible expansion. Voters rejected a plan for a $23 million expansion in 2010.

The jail has a capacity of 304 inmates and currently averages about 275 per day. The possibility of more offenders being sentenced to spending their sentences in the county jail is a cause for concern, Sheriff Doug Cox said. New talks about a jail expansion haven’t started yet but could happen in the future if the county has more inmates in the jail, he said.

THE CHANGES

The proposal: Indiana House Bill 1006 would overhaul the state’s criminal code, creating a six-level felony system and reducing penalties on some offenses including theft and drug possession.

The impact: The new criminal code could result in more offenders serving sentences in county jails. Johnson County, which sends about 150 low-level felons to state prisons each year, might have to keep more of them in the county jail.

The future: A sudden increase in the county’s jail population could prompt talks about a jail expansion. Voters rejected plans for a $23 million expansion in 2010 by a 2-to-1 margin. County officials are looking into an expansion of the community corrections building, which houses the work release program, that is expected to cost more than $1 million.

The county is discussing an expansion to the community corrections work-release facility, expected to cost more than $1 million, which could help reduce crowding at the jail. The program has room for 100 offenders now, but an expansion would allow more offenders to serve their sentence in that program, instead of the jail.

The legislation is being considered by an Indiana House committee. If approved during this legislative session, the changes to the state’s criminal code would take effect in July 2014, giving local officials a year to plan.

Felonies reclassified

If the new sentencing guidelines reduce the number of low-level felons who are sent to prison, it likely would mean more people would be sentenced to serve time in the community corrections program and jail, Cox said.

The proposal would reclassify some Class D felonies as misdemeanors, including some of the most frequently committed crimes, such as possession of controlled substances such as prescription drugs and theft. The penalty for a second offense of possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana also would be reduced to a misdemeanor.

Under state law, people who are convicted of a misdemeanor cannot be sentenced to prison. Instead, they would serve their sentence locally in jail, on work release or home detention, or on probation.

The daily population at the jail is usually 250 to 275 people, Cox said. He said he remains in contact with the prosecutor, judges and the community corrections program when the population in the jail gets close to maximum capacity, so that each can take temporary steps to try to reduce it, such as sentencing more people to the work-release program.

The jail population has exceeded the cap only once since he took office as sheriff in 2011, Cox said.

Johnson County Community Corrections oversees the county’s work-release and home-detention programs. In work release, inmates stay at the community corrections center but are allowed to leave during the day for work. People on home detention live in their homes but are allowed to go only to and from work or other approved destinations and must pass random drug and alcohol tests.

The community corrections program can house up to 100 people in work release and has monitoring equipment available for more than 100 people on home detention, director Albert Hessman said.

The county already is considering expanding the community corrections center, which would increase the number of people who can be sentenced to the work-release program, instead of jail. The county hired an architecture firm in November to research options and the costs of expanding and renovating the work-release facility.

“To say that nothing is going to happen would be naive. There’s going to be an effect to us at some point,” Hessman said.

The work-release and home-detention programs offer alternatives to jail, which can help keep the jail population low, Hessman said.

Population rise expected

Not everyone is a suitable candidate for those programs, and some don’t follow the programs’ rules and end up being sent back to jail, Cox said.

He said he expects the jail population would rise if more offenders are kept locally because of the new law.

“We’re going to be in a bad position,” Cox said. “Even if all 150-some people went to community corrections instead of the jail, not everybody behaves on community corrections, and therefore they end up back in my jail. So that’s a big concern.”

Local officials think the changes could lead to a new discussion about a jail expansion. The most recent expansion was built in 2001 and was required after a lawsuit was filed due to overcrowding. The county spent $9.5 million to add 200 beds, but the jail was facing overcrowding again less than five years after the construction.

The previous plan to add 400 beds in a $23 million expansion was turned down by voters by a 2-to-1 margin in May 2010. After the vote, county officials talked about a smaller expansion to add 200 beds for less than $12 million, but the idea never went past initial talks.

Discussions on the expansion could be restarted if the jail population were to increase because of the new law, Commissioner Ron West said.

“It’s just one of those unfortunate things where the state, in order to relieve their financial obligations and problems, they put it back on local governments,” he said. “If that were to occur, I think that the jail expansion would be back.”

Six-level system proposed

The bill’s author, State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Brownsburg, said the legislation is the final product of four years of state studies.

“The goal is to get it out this year. It has bipartisan support. I have three co-authors; and, yes, we fully expect it to move and get out this year,” he said.

The biggest change the bill would make is replacing the state’s current four-class felony system with a six-level system with new penalty ranges. The additional levels would allow the state to have narrower sentencing guidelines and better define the severity of certain crimes.

The proposal also would change the amount of credit a felon could earn while in prison. An inmate would have to behave in prison for three days to earn one day of credit, instead of the current one day served to one day earned system. The bill also would increase the amount of credit earned for completed rehabilitation and education programs.

Indiana counties would receive a total of $1.9 million in funding that would pay for each county’s chief and deputy probation officers, since probation departments could see an increased number of people on probation.

The changes give prosecutors and courts more flexibility in sentencing and give the people sent to prison more incentive to receive an education and go through rehabilitation programs, Steuerwald said.

“We’ve tried to separate the people we’re mad at from the people we’re afraid of. The people we’re afraid of, we’re trying to make sure they stay incarcerated. On the lower-level felonies, we’re giving the courts some additional discretion in sentencing; so if they want to, they can make greater use of community correction and probation programs,” he said.

Probation violation issues

Local officials aren’t sure at this point exactly what impact the changes will have.

“We’ll figure it out and play by the rules that we’re given,” Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.

Cooper was involved with a group of prosecutors who submitted ideas as part of the state study for code reform and said he supports the new six-level felony system.

The changes would mean some people would have to be sentenced to the county jail or community corrections. But Cooper is not sure whether the new sentencing guidelines for felonies would prevent him from seeking prison sentences for the same number of low-level felons.

The prison will accept only convicted felons serving at least one year, so Cooper often will seek a sentence of one year and one day as a way to help keep the county jail population low.

“I basically look at the rules and know how to work them off to prison instead of into our jail,” he said.

Cooper also seeks prison time for people who commit repeat offenses or probation violations.

“When they violate probation, that is a serious matter here. They’re told that when they go on probation. Our judges are fantastic at holding people to that. People who violate their probation are sent off to prison,” he said.

Most of the people sent to prison for low-level felony convictions are repeat offenders, Cooper said, and penalties for repeat offenses on crimes such as drunken driving and drug possession will remain felonies under the new system.

Cooper said he might seek lesser penalties, such as by filing misdemeanor charges or asking for community corrections placement, for first-time or young offenders arrested on low-level felony charges, but often will seek harsher sentences if those people get into trouble again.

He plans to continue seeking sentences that would send some low-level felons to prison with the new guidelines.

“It just depends upon the rules, and it will modify what kind of agreements I enter into with defendants in terms of sentencing,” he said.

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