Updated criminal code could cost counties

2013-05-12T18:15:00Z 2013-05-13T13:16:03Z Updated criminal code could cost countiesBob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com

Porter County Chief Probation Officer Stephen Meyer said the county could be left to pick up part of the tab for the first significant changes to the state's criminal code in decades.

The changes, which in part redefine felony offenses to keep some offenders out of prison, are expected to result in more work for county probation departments, he said.

The Probation Officers' Professional Association of Indiana predicts as many as 800 more probation officers will be needed statewide during the first few years of the changes, which begin taking effect July 1, 2014, he said.

The Porter County office is already facing the challenge of complying with salary increases required by the state, Meyer said. The office is particularly hard hit because it has several veteran officers.

About a third of the office's $1.8 million annual budget is covered by user fees set by the state. Local officials can't increase those fees, but the balance of the budget is funded with county tax dollars, he said.

Lake County Chief Probation Officer Jan Parsons said the changes in state law puts a greater burden on Lake County’s already over-loaded probation officers.

“The worst of the worst will be incarcerated,” Parsons said. “But the rest will be in community corrections or probation.”

Exactly how many more people will require the services of the probation department in Lake County is not yet know, she said.

“But at this point in time, any increase will affect our department negatively.”

Parsons said the caseload of Lake County probation officers has significantly increased.

In 1987, the ratio of offenders to officers was 40 to 1 in Lake County, she said.

Federal probation authorities currently recommend a caseload of no greater than 70 to 1.

But Lake County ratio is now about 240 to 1.

Parsons said Lake County has 18 probation officers, but a recent study shows the department is 13 short of what’s needed.

The state changes, signed into law last week, expands to six the current four levels of felonies, recommends most low-level felons serve their time in county jails or community corrections programs, and requires serious felons serve at least 75 percent of their sentences, up from 50 percent.

Meyer said a study committee is set to meet over the summer to discuss the costs associated with the changes. But next year is a nonbudget session for state lawmakers, which leaves doubt whether additional funding will be made available for county probation departments, he said.

"So we don't know where any money can come from," he said.

Porter County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, voiced concern recently about this additional financial burden when discussing the potential for the county losing as much as $1.66 million in income tax revenue when neighboring Lake County implements its own tax on workers.

The state legislation was the product of a five-year study by lawmakers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others who looked at every crime on the books, its punishment and how it related to similar crimes.

The new code is the first rebalancing of the state's criminal laws since 1977.

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