Indiana's criminal sentencing reform took effect nearly a month ago and police detectives and prosecutors are still trying to take it all in. The overhaul brought sweeping changes for law enforcement officers, especially the Evansville Police Department's Meth Suppression Unit.
During the 2013 session, the General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1006 which re-wrote 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.
For example, what was once a Class A felony became 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. While it has some positive and negative aspects, the jury is still out on the reform, said Evansville Police Detective Patrick McDonald.
"For me, I've been on the street now for 10 years," Det. McDonald said. "There hasn't been a major overhaul of the criminal code like this. Under the old system, manufacturing [meth] was manufacturing [meth]. It was never able to be enhanced by weight so now we have to look at how we process meth labs and try to get a weight out of that."
Assuming it's safe enough, determining the weight can come from weighing the meth oil. Detectives can also figure out the weight by interviewing the suspects, McDonald said.
The criminal sentencing overhaul eliminated some enhancement charges the Meth Suppression Unit frequently used, McDonald said. McDonald detailed one such example in which a man previously convicted of meth was allegedly caught trying to buy pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth production. Because that man had already been convicted of a meth-related offense, prosecutors added the enhancement charge which bumped up his sentence by eight years.
Some other enhancement charges have been clarified and more clearly defined, McDonald said. He cited the enhancement charge of dealing drugs within 1000 feet of a park or school. Under the new sentencing guidelines, detectives no longer have to prove children were present; the enhancement charge is applicable when it can be 'reasonably expected' that children are present.
The reform also brought drastic changes to what level felony shall apply to how much narcotics detectives discovered.
"What used to be dealing over three grams [the General Assembly] raised that up to be 28 grams," McDonald said. "Three grams is a fairly significant amount, about $300 to $350 worth of meth or cocaine. What we historically considered a 'dealer weight' has been pushed down to minimal prison time."
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," said Vanderburgh County Prosecutor 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."
The key component to the reform was adjusting the sentences someone could face if convicted. Under the old system, dealing in meth was classified as a B felony, punishable by 6-20 years in prison. Offenders would be required to serve at least half of that time, spending between 3-10 years in prison.
Under the new system, dealing in meth is classified as a level 5 felony, punishable by 1-6 years in prison. Offenders now have to serve 75% of their sentences. In this case, they would spend somewhere between 0.75 - 4.5 years in prison. Compared to the old system, in this case, offenders are out in half the time.
However, supporters say it becomes an eventual wash between the two systems because prisoners can't earn the credits they used to while in prison.
"I don't think that the way [it has] changed is really going to [affect] the way that we operate when it comes to seeing some of the repeat customers," McDonald said. "There are still going to be repeat customers regardless of whether they get 2 years or 10 years. Meth-makers know, hopefully, that if they come back out and manufacture meth in Vanderburgh County, they'll see us again."
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.'"