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January 20, 2013

Criminal code reform could shift more costs to counties

Reform bill’s author vows to find money for local corrections if they’re left with more inmates.

INDIANAPOLIS — One the roadblocks to major legislation that rewrites the Indiana criminal code to make punishment better fit the crime is the lack of dollars to implement it on the local level.

If passed by the General Assembly, the legislation would likely reserve the state prisons for the worst offenders, while sending more low-level offenders and drug abusers into county jails, community-based corrections and probation rolls.

Legislators who back the bill say the goal is to get those drug addicts and low-level offenders into programs that offer treatment and intensive supervision that reduce the odds they’ll commit another crime.

But they concede the legislation has yet to include a funding mechanism for much of the extra costs that local communities would have to absorb.

“This doesn’t work unless there’s money to pay for it,” said Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat from Bloomington who worked with Republicans to help craft the legislation that rewrites the criminal code.

The Indiana Sheriff’s Association supports the legislation but with a caveat: It needs to come with funding for cash-strapped counties that can’t pick up the extra costs of housing more inmates and providing the treatment and services aimed at reducing recidivism.

“What we’re worried about is getting caught in an unfunded mandate,” said Stephen Luce, executive director of the association. “Most counties can’t absorb the extra costs.”

The financial impact of the legislation on local and state government has yet to be fully calculated. Lawmakers are awaiting an updated fiscal statement from the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency.

One of the bill’s key authors, Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, has vowed to get local communities the resources they need, if the bill passes.

Andrew Berger, government affairs director for the Association of Indiana Counties, is also keeping a watchful eye on the legislation.

“Our members agree with the goal of the legislation,” Berger said. “But it’s going to mean more offenders sent into programs that counties are going to have to find a way to pay for.”

The legislation does include $1.9 million to reimburse counties for the cost of paying the salaries of their chief and deputy chief probation officers, which could free up some money to pay for what’s expected to be an expanded caseload for county probation departments.

But as yet, there are no additional funds for treatment programs in the bill.

Some lawmakers point out that the state could shift more prison dollars into local community corrections programs that are funded by the Indiana Department of Correction. But there are rural counties in Indiana that don’t have any community corrections programs and others that have minimal programs.

User fees, paid by offenders to offset the cost of community-based treatment programs, are common in many counties. But for offenders who are indigent, counties have to pick up the costs.

Luce is a believer in the legislation’s goal. He’s a former Knox County sheriff who started a treatment program for methamphetamine addicts housed in his jail after he’d seen so many of them return.

In addition to counseling in jail, inmates got help from community volunteers finding jobs and other support once they got out. Private dollars and a state grant got the program going.

“You can make jail a positive experience for people if you provide the right kind of programs,” Luce said. “But it takes money to provide those programs.”

The legislation that rewrites the criminal code was spurred by a failed attempt at sentencing reform in 2010. That earlier effort came after a study showed that Indiana’s prison count had grown by 41 percent between 2000 and 2009 — an increase three times that of neighboring states.

The study also found that the increase had been caused not by violent criminals but by drug addicts and by low-level, nonviolent criminals. The study found that Indiana was punishing both groups much more severely than neighboring states.

The current legislation, House Bill 1006, which received its first hearing last week, raises the penalties for the worst offenders, while reducing punishment for the lowest level offenders, including people convicted of possessing or selling small amounts of drugs.

It requires felons to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of receiving the current day-for-day good behavior credit, which often cuts sentences in half.

Low-level felons would be less likely to go to prison. The legislation gives judges more discretion in sentencing and eliminates some of the mandatory prison sentences that are currently in law. Those low-level felons would likely serve their time in county jails or under intensive supervision in a community corrections program, or be put on probation.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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