COA: Mentally disabled man belongs in work release, not prison

October 31, 2016

A Greene County man whose home detention was revoked in favor of imprisonment will now be sent to a work-release facility after the Indiana Court of Appeals found that the man’s financial situation and documented mental illnesses were  mitigating factors in his sentencing.

In December 2014, Justin Johnson pleaded guilty to neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury as a Level 3 felony.  At a sentencing hearing the following month, the Greene Superior Court admitted two reports from health care professionals at Johnson’s request. One of the professionals wrote in their report that Johnson had been admitted for psychiatric hospitalizations multiple times and that he would likely meet the criteria for mild mental retardation if he were formally tested.

However, the trial court chose to sentence Johnson to 11 years in prison, with seven years served on home detention through community corrections and four years suspended to probation. Additionally, Johnson was ordered not to have any contact with his victim as a condition of his probation.

In December 2015, the Greene County Community Corrections filed a notice that Johnson was behind in home detention fees and that he had violated the terms of his home detention on multiple occasions.

At a hearing in January 2016, a case manager testified that although Johnson was originally sentenced to home detention, he had agreed to move to a work release center until he qualified for support through the Bloomfield Housing Authority.  The case manager also testified that Johnson, who was on a $720 monthly fixed income, was having difficulty paying his home detention fees because he also needed to pay for his rent and food, but that he had indicated that he could apply for food stamps and receive assistance from local food banks.

Johnson’s counsel requested that he be placed at the work release facility, but the trial court chose to modify Johnson’s sentence to seven years executed in the Department of Correction, with 640 days credited to him.

Johnson appealed, arguing that the nature of his violations to home detention were minor, that he did not commit any new offenses or violate the no-contact order and that when he did violate his home detention, he was still close to being in compliance. Further, Johnson argued that it was undisputable that he had previously been successful in the work release program, and that his financial burden would have been eased in work release.

In a Monday opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals wrote that it agreed with Johnson’s argument that when he was in violation of his home detention, he was still close to being in compliance and, further, that well-documented mental limitations were relevant mitigating factors.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals wrote that  “to the extent the court’s decision to revoke Johnson’s placement was based in part on his failure to make full payment of his fees…the record does not establish that Johnson had the ability to make full payment of the fees.” Further, the appellate court wrote that Johnson could more easily afford the work release placement fees if he did not have a rent payment.

Thus, although Johnson did violate terms of his home detention, the Court of Appeals decided Monday that under the circumstances, the trial court abused its discretion in ordering Johnson to serve the rest of his sentence in prison. Thus, the case was remanded back to the trial court with instructions to enter an order that Johnson be placed on work release.

The case is Justin S. Johnson v. State of Indiana, 28A05-1602-CR-309.



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