CROWN POINT | The first major overhaul of the state's criminal code in decades will go into effect Tuesday.
The changes come after a five-year review by the state's Criminal Code Evaluation Commission of sentencing laws. The major changes include increasing the current four levels of felonies to six. Sentencing guidelines also will call for the most serious felons to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of 50 percent.
Some local officials are worried about what the sentencing changes will mean for counties already working under tight budgets.
One of the driving forces behind the revisions was to reduce the growing number of inmates in state facilities.
According to the Indiana Department of Correction, there were 26,778 male inmates as of May 1, which is 2 percent below the state’s capacity. As of that same time period, there were 2,802 female offenders, which is 3 percent below capacity.
As of May, 40.6 percent of men held in county and state facilities were charged with Class B felonies.
The new code also calls for low-level felons to serve their sentences in county jails or alternative community correction programs. For example, a person convicted of residential entry, a level 6 felony, will serve a sentence ranging from six months to two years and six months in jail or community corrections.
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said he doesn't expect to see an immediate impact in his jail overnight. However, he expects to see an increase in the jail population as judges begin implementing the new sentencing guidelines.
"I'm afraid we are in for some problems down the road," Buncich said.
The added burden comes while the Lake County Jail is under federal oversight after the U.S. Department of Justice cited the jail in 2009 as deficient in healthcare and sanitation.
The sheriff's work-release program was recently cut by the county to free up money to pay for additional corrections officers as required by the Justice Department. The Lake County Community Corrections took over the work-release offenders.
Buncich said his department will continue to work with Lake County Criminal Courts to try to keep the jail population down through pre-trial release programs and ankle monitors.
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"We'll have to live with it," he said. "The law is the law."
According to House Bill 1006, the Indiana Department of Correction is supposed to provide to officials an estimate of how much they are saving under the new revisions by March 1, 2015. If the department does see financial savings, the difference could be distributed to community corrections and court probation services.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said counties can request more money for community corrections programs. Indiana legislatures are also expected to appropriate money to increase programs to help offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
"I think that is the concern; will the money follow?" Landis said. "We will know once they go back into session in January."
He said the revisions should be an opportunity for local judges and sheriffs to revise bail, which could free up space in county jails. He said an estimated 70 percent of inmates in local jails are there awaiting deposition of their criminal case, because many can't afford to post bail.
The new sentencing guidelines also are expected to affect probation officers. Last year, the Probation Officers' Professional Association of Indiana predicted the state would need as many 800 more probation officers when the reforms take effect.
Stephen Meyer, the Porter County chief of adult probation, said he doesn't know of any probation department that has been able to add officers, because counties are working under tight budgets.
"It's hard to say what impact it's going to have on community corrections," Meyer said. "We are all across the state trying to figure it out."
He said it has been years since he has been able to hire a new staff member and doesn't think he will get funding to hire anyone immediately. That's because the county is already asking him to cut costs within his department.
Meyer said his department will work smarter, and will put more focus on offenders who have been assessed to be a high risk.
"For right now, our hands are tied," he said.