CROWN POINT | With sweeping changes to the state's criminal code under review downstate, alternative sentencing proved a hot topic for all 11 judicial hopefuls, now narrowed to three.
The 11 attorneys were seeking to fill a criminal court vacancy left open when longtime Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. announced he would assume the juvenile court bench.
Stefaniak is well-recognized as a staunch supporter of community corrections programs into which many offenders are ordered in lieu of prison sentences.
The criminal code revamp, five years in the making, leans heavily toward such alternative sentencing, in part to avoid building yet another costly state prison.
With the prospect of more sentencing options available, each applicant was asked their view of alternative versus traditional sentencing, as well as any other "outside the box" ideas aimed at reducing costs and improving efficiency locally.
Emerging as one of the three finalists was veteran Highland attorney Sam Cappas, who said he saw sentencing as a most serious matter.
Over a nearly 27-year career, Cappas said his experiences as a deputy prosecutor, criminal defense attorney and pro tem judge have taught him offenders are not all necessarily "bad guys."
"People who can be helped should be helped," Cappas told members of the nine-member judical nominating commission chaired by Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker.
The commission was composed of Rucker, four veteran attorneys and four other professionals appointed by the county commissioners.
Cappas was one of several applicants who spoke to the practicality of having low-level, nonviolent offenders plead to a felony they later can petition be reduced to a misdemeanor.
Cappas questioned the wisdom of unnecessarily labeling someone a felon when a felony conviction can be a death knell to employment.
To lower the county jail's own population issues, Cappas suggested lowering bond amounts. Rarely in his career has he had anyone flee, he said.
Another finalist, with 25 years of experience and leanings similar to Cappas, criminal defense attorney Timothy Ormes, of Highland, also supports alternative sentencing to give nonviolent offenders a chance to prove themselves able to become productive citizens.
In other areas, Ormes said he would seek to open more lines of communication, both among the attorneys involved in a case and also among the four felony court judges.
As an example, Ormes said in pretrial conferences in judge's chambers only, attorneys can speak more freely about what's going on with their case. That dialogue increases the likelihood of a plea sooner rather than later, saving time and eliminating the expense of jury selection when none was needed, he said.
Ormes also would encourage holding regular weekly meetings among the criminal court judges. Communication is key, he said.
Ormes also advocates a return to open jury selection where jurors' names and cities or towns are provided to each party in a case, restoring to defendants the presumption of innocence and due process. Current practice identifies jurors by numbers.
The third finalist, Lake County Superior Court Magistrate Michael Pagano, boasts more than a decade in what he described as "real world education."
A lawyer for 16 years, Pagano has served as magistrate under Judge Julie Cantrell since 2001. As such, he handles civil, criminal and traffic cases in a high-volume court.
Pagano last year was one of 15 applicants seeking to replace outgoing Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shephard.
Pagano said he has enough experience to know "where we're ahead of the curve and where we're behind."
He sees "common sense and treatment" for nonviolent offenders a plus under the new criminal codes. But he opposes offenders being made to serve 85 percent rather than 50 percent of a prison sentence under the new code, arguing inmates have less to lose.
The names of the three finalists were submitted to Gov. Mike Pence on Monday, said Kathryn Dolan, public information officer for the state Supreme Court.
According to statute, Pence has 60 days from then to make his selection, which must be made without regard to the nominees' political affiliation.