'Jury is Still Out' on Criminal Sentencing Reform Set to Take Effect Tuesday

Going into effect Monday will be the first massive overhaul of the Indiana's criminal sentencing guidelines since President Richard Nixon was in office. But will the time match the crime? One Tri-State county prosecutor doesn't think so.

Going into effect Monday will be the first massive overhaul of the Indiana's criminal sentencing guidelines since President Richard Nixon was in office. But will the time match the crime? One Tri-State county prosecutor doesn't think so.

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.

While the reform gives county prosecutors more flexibility in terms of enhancement charges, there are other areas that leave much to be desired, according to Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann.

"There are several things that you question and there are several things that are downright offensive," Hermann said. "We've been looking at it for a year and a half, although things keep changing. I think the most recent change was made on [June 17th]. We aren't going to have code books for another month."
 
The massive overhaul takes effect when the clock strikes midnight on Tuesday morning, July 1st. The transition will take place immediately.

"If the criminal act occurs before midnight, then you're going to be under the old system of laws," Hermann said. "After midnight, you're going to be under the new system of laws. You're going to have quite a mixture over the next six months to a year."

Hermann also added that instances may occur in which a case is prosecuted under the old system despite the new system already being in place. For example, many sex crimes aren't reported until well after the offense occurred, Hermann said.

The criminal sentencing reform also reduces the range in which a judge can select a sentence for an offender.

"I keep seeing over and over again that this is about giving judges discretion. It does the exact opposite," Hermann said. "By shrinking the sentencing range down, if you have a level 5 felony or level 4 felony, you only have a small window in which you can sentence someone. You still need to be able to give the judge the ability when appropriate to really lock somebody up and throw away the key. You need to be able to separate your users; your dealers; your big dealers; major dealers; people that are really moving a lot of product. I feel like that system takes that ability away from the judges."

Legislators billed the reform as a way to ease the apparent overcrowding at state prisons after a 'tough on crime' movement in the 1990s. However, many offenders will now carry out their sentences at local, county-operated prisons, Hermann said.

"When you start putting more people in, it's going to start causing more problems. That puts pressure on your judiciary," Hermann said. "One of two things is going to happen: you're going to be severe overcrowding or you're going to be encouraging judges not to put people in jail."

Don't expect the criminal sentencing reform to be implemented without changes, Hermann said. The 500+ page sentencing guideline statutes may change once they are applied to real cases, according to Hermann.

"Any time you monkey around with something as large as the criminal code, you're going to make mistakes and I think the legislature has acknowledged that," Hermann said. "I think they're going to be very open if we see something over the next six months and say 'this isn't fair and this isn't right.'"
 

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