The Indiana General Assembly is in the process of tweaking the criminal sentencing reform that will take effect July 1st. However, the way the bill is written now, prosecutors say it could lead to more offenders out of jail and on the streets.
During the 2013 session, the General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1006 that rewrites the felony portion of the state's criminal code. The new law expands upon the state's four levels of felonies (Class A-D) and creates six levels of felonies (Level 1-6). The reform was intended to ease prison crowding and give judges more discretion to let low-level offenders serve their time in community correctional programs which Vanderburgh County already has.
For example, a current Class A felony would become a Level 1 or Level 2 felony, depending on severity. As part of the reform, offenders would have to serve 75% of their sentences instead of the current 50%. While the reform strengthens the sentences for sex crimes and violent crimes, it lessens the sentences for drug crimes. It would not affect the sentences of offenders convicted of murder.
Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann agrees with some parts of the sentencing reform but has concerns about the proposed sentencing guidelines when it comes to meth convictions.
"It's such a big law and covers so many different areas, there are going to be problems," Hermann said. "I think it's incumbent upon the public to express their displeasure if they see something they don't like"
Chances are, those displeasures will center around meth-related sentences, especially in this area.
Take Godfrey Egwu for example. In October 2013, he was found guilty of dealing meth and conspiracy to deal meth. Both of those charges are Class B felonies and carry a sentence of 6-20 years in prison per charge.
Egwu was sentenced to 16 years but will only serve 8 years, assuming good behavior, because of the state's current 50% rule.
Under the new system, Egwu's charges will be considered Level 4 felonies and carry a sentence of 2-12 years in prison. All things being equal, he would likely have been sentenced to 8 years in prison. However, under the new system which features a 75% rule, Egwu would only serve 6 years.
Even though Egwu has to actually serve more of his sentence, he'll be out sooner because the sentences are lighter.
"The number of meth labs in Vanderburgh County has stayed the same the last two or three years. You know there is more out there," Hermann said. "I think now is not the time to lower the penalties. I think the deterrent effect alone is a reason not to lower the penalties. We've got to address that."
"Take speeding for example. If they increase the penalties and instead of a $150 ticket, it's $5000. If you were caught speeding, you would slow down. That affects behavior."
In addition to difficulties in creating confidential informants, the sentencing reform also has an impact on what enhancement charges prosecutors can file, Hermann said. Under the current system, prosecutors can file enhanced drug charges if the crime is committed within 1000 feet of a school or other 'safe haven.' Under the new system, prosecutors can only file the enhancement charge if the crime is committed on a school bus or within 500 feet of a school in which 'it can be reasonably expected that someone under the age of 18 will be on the property,' Hermann said.
Hermann said state law enforcement groups will be in Indianapolis lobbying lawmakers to make some changes to the new criminal sentencing guidelines. Hermann also urges local constituents to contact their lawmakers to express their concerns.
Hermann's concerns aren't just limited to the sentences for meth-related convictions. Changes need to be made to sentences for home invasion convictions. Right now, a home invasion resulting in bodily injury carries a penalty of 20 to 50 years in prison. Under the new system, it only carries a penalty of 10 to 30 years.
"In the State of Indiana, we have Castle Doctrine," Hermann said. "If somebody breaks into your house and they're inside your house, you're allowed to shoot them. You're allowed to administer the death penalty but at the same time we're going to lower the penalties if you get caught."
Hermann also said once the new sentencing reform kicks in on July 1st, the court system will be operating on the current system and the new system. It will remain that way until all the cases filed under the current system are adjudicated.
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