CRIME & PUNISHMENT
Tuesday, July 01, 2014 11:00 AM
The revised Indiana criminal code effective today includes sweeping penalty reductions for drug-related offenses and other non-violent crimes, while enhancing punishments for the state's most serious and violent offenders.
The changes, part of House Bill 1006, separate drug charges into more tiers through a new classification system, departing from the old codes created in 1977. The new statute will be used for crimes that occur beginning today.
A key element and reoccurring theme of the new code is pursuing harsher penalties for violent offenders and pushing rehabilitation or lesser sentences for non-violent offenders.
With that in mind, the state's old felony system - A through D - has been replaced with six classes. The numbered classes range from 1 to 6, with Class 1 being the most severe offense next to murder. It also reduces 88 crimes down to a lesser offenses.
Jefferson County Prosecutor Chad Lewis understands using a tier system for drug offenses, creating harsher penalties for violent offenders and encouraging offender rehabilitation. But he's concerned the statute doesn't match the culture of Jefferson County, specifically with the community's ongoing battle against drugs.
"I think it's going to have a drastic impact on our ability to fight drugs in our community," Lewis said.
Because of the tier process, the penalties for drug busts including a few grams have been more than cut in half in some cases.
In the old system, dealing 4.5 grams of meth would classify as a Class A felony because the amount was more than 3 grams. Now, the same crime is a Class 4 felony, and the penalties for those two charges are anything but mirror images.
A Class A felony is punishable by 20-50 years in prison, whereas a Class 4 felony is punishable by two to 12 years in prison.
"So, for somebody dealing 4.5 grams of meth, we've gone from possibly 20 to 50 years now to two to 12 years," Lewis said.
The problem with those changes is that local offenders who have been identified by law enforcement as drug dealers - not just drug users supporting a habit - often don't meet the quantity requirements for harsher penalties.
"Our drug dealers aren't pushing huge weights," Lewis said.
While sentencing for many offenses has decreased, the state has raised the requirement on days served behind bars.
With the new codes, good time requirements have increased from 50 percent to 75 percent, meaning inmates must serve 75 percent of their original sentence.
The change is in place for Class 1-5 felonies, though Class 6 offenders will still receive 50 percent good time. The exception was included to help maintain prison population because Indiana Department of Correction officials were concerned about growing inmate population as a result of the new statute.
Lewis calls the change "truth in sentencing," which puts actual time served closer to original sentences instead of inmates leaving early because of good time and incentive programs.
Before the rewrite, IDOC inmates received good time for every day served, meaning inmates potentially could be released in five years on a 10-year sentence. In addition to good time, inmates also could receive earned time by earning their high-school equivalency diploma, completing college courses or completing counseling.
Lewis said he's seen instances where an inmate has been released 18 months after receiving a 10-year sentence.
The new policy will also cap earned time at two years, giving "more certainty to victims," Lewis said.
A measure that goes hand-in-hand with the time credit change is more severe penalties for the state's most serious offenses of murder or a Class 1 felony.
The Class 1 felony represents the top tier of a former Class A felony and brings a penalty of 20 to 50 years while murder brings a punishment of 45 to 65 years. With the new time-served requirement, the minimum sentences are often more than the maximum sentences under the old law.
"You're looking at more than you would have with the old statute," Lewis said. "The rest of them, though, kind of go the other way."
There are only nine crimes in the Class 1 felony - including rape, armed robbery and specific child molestation charges - which will make the larger sentences much less frequent.
Last year, 18,000 people were sentenced to the IDOC and only 54 of those would have fallen into the category of a Class 1 offender.
"Yes, they're being harder on those worst offenders, but there's not that many in the Level 1," Lewis said.
Based on prior data, Indiana lawmakers estimate that 96 percent of all crimes in Indiana will be Class 5 felonies and lower.
"They can say we're being harsher on the worst offender, but really, the impact of this bill is decreasing penalties," Lewis said.
The code changes provide some of the most relaxed marijuana laws the state has ever seen. With the former statute, marijuana charges elevated with each offense, starting with a misdemeanor and graduating to a felony for repeat offenses. Multiple convictions also could lead to a habitual offender status, which increase sentencing time.
The new codes maintain marijuana's illegal status but take away much of the punishments.
"It's illegal, but they've really reduced it," Lewis said.
The new codes puts a first offense for marijuana possession as a Class B misdemeanor. The second offense would increase to a Class A misdemeanor.
Marijuana only will be considered a Class 6 felony if the person has more than 30 grams and has a prior offense. The original proposal included even more extreme reductions but Gov. Mike Pence threatened to veto the bill.
"While not decimalizing it or making it legal, they've really decreased the penalties," Lewis said.
One of the major changes that upset Lewis is the new penalties for burglary. The offense is listed in the property crimes portion of the statute and no longer considered a crime against a person.
Residential burglary is another example of an offense that has been reduced from a Class B felony to a Class 4 felony, which brings two to 12 years in prison.
Lewis argued during the creation of the law that burglary was indeed a crime against a person and called the new penalties "one of the worst things that came out of this bill."
"You could potentially get an 18-month sentence, and I think that's way too low for the protection of our community," Lewis said.
The prosecutor's office handles several burglaries a year and sees first-hand the lingering effects.
"They invest in home security systems and don't feel safe in their homes anymore. They double check locks. They don't go to bed without going through their whole home, looking at every room, every closet and under every bed. It becomes a mental health issue that they can't get out of their head," he said.
Theft also has been changed. Theft less than $750 will become a misdemeanor, while theft of $750 or more will be a felony.
Lewis said the reason for the change was that lawmakers worried those shoplifting small items would be subject to felony charges.
Many of the prosecutors, including Lewis, agreed but lobbied for the state lawmakers to make shoplifting its own item and maintain theft as a felony.
"They wouldn't do that," Lewis said.
County Jail and Community Corrections
County jails role has changed from a holding facility to a place offenders can be sentenced.
A specific amendment made in conference committee calls for Class 6 felons to serve sentences of up to 180 days or less in the local county jails and not be sent to prison.
The decision was made because IDOC worried about rising inmate numbers. But Lewis said the actual numbers have not shown that trend.
"We know from the past couple years that our prison population has plateaued," Lewis said. "Last year, they released more people than they admitted, so it actually went down."
In addition to the county jails possibly taking on inmate sentences, Lewis expects local community corrections to treat more offenders.
The bill includes $11 million in funding for programs like community corrections, but those dollars will be distributed between that state's 92 counties, and most likely not proportionately.
While Lewis takes issue with much of the changes, he said the transition should not disrupt law enforcement because the definitions of the crimes have not changed.
He spent much of last week combing over the details of the statute with local law enforcement.
"Some crimes, it's not going to change how they investigate," he said.
A majority of the changes will come from the prosecutor's office in assessing and charges and with judge's sentencing process.
"The crimes and the elements themselves didn't change a whole lot, as far as what we have to prove," Lewis said.