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Law sending low-level offenders to counties raises questions

July 6, 2015

Indiana counties are expecting to see increases in their inmate populations under a new law that will send low-level offenders to county jails, work release or home detention instead of to prison, the South Bend Tribune reported Sunday.

The law, which took effect Wednesday, prohibits judges from sentencing people convicted of crimes such as resisting law enforcement, intimidation and some drug offenses to prison if their sentence is less than 90 days behind bars. That will increase to a year behind bars on Jan. 1.

“It takes them away from home,” Kate Williams, executive administrator of the St. Joseph County Community Corrections Advisory Board, said of imprisoning low-level offenders. “If they did have a job at the time they were arrested, they're going to lose it. So we’re looking to keep family connections, community connections for people, and focusing on what their main issues are. A lot of times that’s substance abuse and mental health.”

Williams said sending someone to a state prison is “a very blunt instrument,” and authorities hope to see lower recidivism rates under the new law.

“We’re hoping to do more targeted interventions because we’re spending so much money incarcerating people and not really getting the results,” she said.

But the law, which follows a 2014 measure that lowered many drug-possession offenses to Level 6 felonies, isn’t without costs.

St. Joseph County officials are anticipating a 25 percent increase in the number of people on home detention and work release for the new fiscal year. As a result, it will receive an extra $300,000 from the Indiana Department of Correction through a community corrections block grant.

The extra money will help pay for more staff, substance-abuse counselors, a GED coordinator and a re-entry coordinator who will focus on life skills and job readiness.

Officials say it’s too soon to know whether the additional money will be enough.

“The uncertainty in all of it is just how many people are in community corrections who will violate terms of their community corrections program and go back into the county jail?” said Bill Wilson, jail services coordinator for the Indiana Sheriffs Association.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said he thinks that by removing the possibility of prison time, the new law eliminates a key deterrent to criminal acts.

He pointed to a domestic situation in which a man breaks into his ex-girlfriend’s home. A conviction on residential entry, a Level 6 felony, could no longer send him to prison.

“If one (person) is more dangerous because of that, it may not be a great move,” Cotter said.
 

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