Major changes to Indiana’s criminal code could lead to overcrowding at the county jail, a strain on local funds and less accountability for offenders.
Those are some concerns held by local officials, including Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill and Sheriff Brad Rogers. They’re bracing for the broad code revisions passed by the Indiana General Assembly.
In a nutshell, the revised code that went into effect July 1 will send more low-level felons and nonviolent criminals to local corrections programs and jails instead of state prisons, the Associated Press reports.
Serious felons, on the other hand, will only be able to shave 25 percent off their sentences with good behavior instead of 50 percent. There will also be less leniency on drug crimes and habitual criminals.
Right now, Rogers and his staff at the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department are anticipating a climbing number of inmates at the 1,000 bed Elkhart County Corrections Center.
“By the end of the year we’re probably going to see some increase, and then this time next year we could potentially be full if this pans out,” Rogers said,
That’s a possibility rather than a prognosis, he said.
As of Tuesday, July 15, the jail was at 65 percent capacity. There have been occasions, like the summer of 2009, when the jail reached 100 percent capacity, Rogers said.
Theoretically, if the new criminal code had been in place in 2013, the jail may have housed anywhere from 220 to 570 additional inmates, according to numbers from the jail.
“You know, we’ve had criticism that we built our jail too big. We’ll soon found out if that’s the case or not,” Rogers said.
And more inmates means a higher operating cost — but there are some nuanced ways those costs could really add up.
For example, felonies charged at a lower level often involve drug use and abuse, which means more inmates with medical problems.
“Typically the lower the crime level, the worse the health,” Rogers said.
A single inmate can incur thousands of dollars of health-related expenses, which is not usually reimbursed by the state.
Earlier this year, a person arrested for drunk driving had a heart attack in the jail and it cost the department $220,000, Rogers said.
“Now obviously every inmate is not that way, but we’ve had worst case scenarios,” Rogers said.
An increase in inmates could also reduce the jail’s ability to rent out beds to other law enforcement entities, which has brought the county as much as $600,000 in a year.
From his side of things, Rogers doesn’t see any upsides to the code revision.
“If the [Indiana Department of Correction] would’ve paid us for the [low-level] felons, I think it would’ve been a better balance, and there was talk of that early in the legislation – but it never came to fruition,” he said.
Curtis Hill, Elkhart County prosecutor, said he believes many of the code changes are a solution to a problem that didn't exist.
“There seems to be a push from the General Assembly coming up through Indianapolis and other areas that are attempting to limit accountability, and I think it’s misplaced,” he said.
Hill referenced a study done in 2012 by the Center for Criminal Justice Research at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute.
It found that people who commit low-level felonies and are sentenced to state prisons have often been convicted of other crimes, according to Indiana Public Media
“The study basically concluded that the right people were in the right place,” Hill said. “So we have these changes put in place that really aren’t going to have the impact people think,” he said.
In addition, the approach of reducing sentencing guidelines to free up space in prisons is “backwards thinking,” Hill said.
He also expressed disappointment in local members of the Indiana General Assembly.
“[They] didn’t make efforts to reach out to my office to address how these changes actually work and what kind of impact they’ll actually have,” Hill said.
A specific code change Hill takes issue with is the reduction of drug-free zones, or areas that carry higher penalties if someone is caught selling drugs in them.
Before July 1, “if someone sold drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, I could enhance a penalty or request a penalty increase,” Hill said.
“They reduced that field by 500 feet, so the practical effect is a drug dealer can sell drugs closer to school with less concern for the effects the system can put on them,” he said.
Another side effect of the code change is that people who committed a crime on June 30 are still prosecuted under the old statute.
“We’re actually operating under two criminal codes at this time. It’s very problematic,” he said.
Sentencing revisions could also make it tougher to prosecute certain crimes.
“It’s now only a felony if you steal $750 worth of something. What that does for my office, and police, it makes it more difficult to establish that theft has occurred,” Hill said.
“It takes some time”
Stephen Bowers, judge for Superior Court 2, is fairly optimistic about the county’s ability to adapt to the changes.
In 1977, he had just graduated from law school when Indiana’s criminal code was majorly revised.
“I was around to see how that played out. It was obviously a much more dramatic change from law than the current change, and it took a while for people to adjust to it,” he said.
But those new provisions, which initially seemed overly complicated and difficult to figure out, became second nature as time went on.
“I think some of the same will happen here,” Bowers said.