Community impact from Ind. sentencing reform in question

County jails may be faced with overpopulation as a result of sentencing reform

By Mike Fletcher
Kokomo Tribune

KOKOMO, Ind. — Sentencing reform aims to reduce Indiana’s prison population, but the law may have the opposite effect on county jails.

The reforms passed this year mean to divert low-level offenders away from state prisons and into county jails or community-based programs by giving judges more leeway in sentencing for those crimes.

Howard County officials are unsure how the new sentencing guidelines will impact the county jail and justice system.

“We’re all for anything that would reduce population at the jail,” Sheriff Steve Rogers said.

“The sheriffs across the state are concerned about the overpopulation in county jails,” he said. “What does that mean to us? We don’t know yet. We are in a wait-and-see mode.”

The sweeping changes to Indiana’s criminal code took effect July 1.

The new guidelines establish felony ranges numbered from Class 1 to Class 6, instead of the previous A through D system. They also decrease minimum sentences for many crimes, but call for the most serious felons to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of 50 percent.

Mandatory sentences for high-level crimes such as murder, rape and drug dealing remain.

Rogers said a report from the Indiana Department of Correction showed that of 197 Howard County offenders currently in prison, 113 would have been sentenced under Class 5 or 6 guidelines and would not have been sent to the Department of Correction — they would be returned to the jail.

“That will have an impact on population,” Rogers said.

“Today, we’re at 380 [inmates]. If we had even 30 or 40 more, we would have some trouble finding beds. Inmates will cycle in and out, but that will have an impact on the population,” he said.

Court-ordered programs such as alcohol and drug treatment, anger management and a community transition are all provided to inmates housed at the jail or who are in prison.

With progress on a work-release program on hold, Rogers is worried Howard County won’t have the room to house those low-level offenders who will be diverted from the prison system.

The sheriff department uses low-level, non-violent offenders in its inmate work crews. They mow yards, clear debris and assist in setting up for different events, including the Duck Derby, which was held Thursday at Kokomo Beach.

Rogers also questions whether the new sentence reforms will reduce his inmate work crew.

“They are the ones that would qualify for the programs,” he said. “We don’t want to hire people for those jobs.”

Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann also wonders how the system will affect the jail population in the long run.

“The test for us is when we go to sentences or prepare for plea hearings,” McCann said. “We’re getting used to new guidelines and how much time offenders will actually spend.

“It really didn’t change much other than 90 felony penalties were decreased, primarily for drug and property crimes,” said McCann. “They did increase 30 felony sex crimes and crimes of violence. The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s counsel did a really good job on staying on top of this. It went a lot smoother than I thought.”

McCann added any case filed prior to July 1 will be filed as A, B, C and D felonies and anything that happened after July 1 will be filed with the new format.

“Talking with law enforcement, the major impact or change has been with drug-related offenses,” he said. “Murder and misdemeanors remain the same under the new bill. I don’t think anybody knows how it will impact the jail population yet.”

McCann said he believes the community does not have adequate programs, especially in the area of mental health, to meet what could be increased demand because of sentencing reform. He added a work release program would be a huge benefit because it would keep those low-level offenders out of the jail.

“My concern is with the individuals who are going to be returned to local jails or community corrections,” McCann said. “There’s a great deal of them suffering from some sort of mental illness. I do not believe there are sufficient resources in this community to treat those individuals. There is a significant amount of these defendants that need mental health treatment instead of incarceration.

“We’ve dealt with these issues in the past when someone is diagnosed with a mental health issue and gets off their medication. They commit a crime and get out and are not being treated or don’t have access to treatment and commit a more serious crime,” McCann continued. “I think it would cut down on the criminal activity if these people are getting treatment versus putting them in jail. We need to address that, but it’s going to take everyone coming together and it’s going to take money.”

The state earmarked $11 million to assist local facilities, but how that is going to be distributed is unknown, McCann said.

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