Impact of Indiana’s criminal code changes unclear

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Indiana's prosecutors and judges are still adjusting to sweeping changes to the state's criminal code intended to send more low-level, nonviolent criminals to community corrections programs and jails instead of state prisons.

Vanderburgh Superior Court Judge Wayne Trockman said it's too early to assess whether they're working because people who committed crimes before the changes took effect July 1 are still being sentenced under the previous code.

The new guidelines create felony ranges numbered from Class 1 to Class 6, instead of the previous A-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.

Trockman said the changes also lowered penalties for most drug offenses and gave judges more flexibility in sentencing nonviolent offenders — both of which could reduce prison populations. He said additional resources will be needed to help pay for directing more offenders away from state prisons and into the care of local jails and programs.

State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a Plainfield Republican who chaired the Courts and Criminal Code Committee, said finding the funding to provide local resources to support that shift is going to be "a major topic" for lawmakers when their next session begins Jan. 6. Lawmakers gave the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute $2 million to distribute to county forensic diversion programs.

"More than 30 counties showed an interest, but the institute was only able to give out 11 grants. It was estimated they could have easily given out another $10 million," Steuerwald told the Evansville Courier & Press.

State Rep. Wendy McNamara, a Mount Vernon Republican who helped shape the changes, said they were long overdue.

"It had been several decades since the last changes. Society changes and we need to adapt," she said.

One of the biggest changes was the revision of drug statutes, Vanderburgh County deputy prosecutor Camala Cooley said. Those included making illegal possession of some prescription medications — such as less addictive painkillers, steroids and anxiety medications — a misdemeanor.

Cooley said the idea behind was to increase penalties for crimes against people and generally make sentencing more proportional to the offenses.

But the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council wants to reverse some of the new code because it believes some penalties for drug crimes are too low, said Aaron Negangard, the prosecutor for both Dearborn and Ohio counties who chairs IPAC's legislative committee.

"It was so broad-ranging and far-reaching that some of the changes were probably not what legislators intended," he said.

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