ANDERSON — Changes are on the way in Indiana’s criminal code, specifically sentencing reform. And it has state officials concerned.
Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings is one of them.
Starting in July, the reform eases penalties for non-violent crimes like drug use and theft and strengthens punitive measures for sex and violent offenders. The law, which overhauls the state’s felony criminal code established in 1977, is expected to put greater emphasis on communities to rehabilitate non-violent offenders through problem-solving courts and community solutions. At the same time, it will impose greater prison terms for violent felons. It’s also expected to generally change the way court procedures are handled.
On Monday, The Herald Bulletin reported that sheriffs and prosecutors around the state are concerned about the reform for several reasons. For example, under the law, a sentence for drug-dealing that currently carries a 10-year sentence could be reduced to two years. Additionally, officials worry communities will have extra onus placed on them to rehabilitate drug offenders without receiving proper funding to operate the increased load in problem-solving courts.
“We’re not a little worried. We’re very worried,” Cummings said.
Cummings said that under the reform, convictions involving drugs will be largely marginalized. He cited methamphetamine in particular.
“Under this, meth will be treated like a low-level offense. And it’s not. This community has a serious problem with that,” Cummings said.
The county’s struggle with meth has been well-documented. The local Pendleton Police Post, which handles several surrounding counties, created a Meth Team to specifically deal with the scourge. In 2012, the county led the state and was second in the country in meth lab busts by police. Those numbers went down in 2013, but Cummings and members of the Madison County Drug Task Force have admitted the reductions are more due to lack of emphasis and funding than to a real drop in usage.
“It tears at the fabric of our community. It’s a really terrible problem,” Cummings said.
The reform is expected to give judges greater latitude over sentences, particularly low-level offenders with addictions or mental illnesses. Madison County Circuit Court 4 Judge David Happe said that aspect of reform could be good, as long as it’s properly funded
“From what I hear, a lot of costs are being shifted to local communities. And that’s not bad as long as we have control over it,” Happe said. “I hope they’ll recognize that if they’re pushing for the function, they’ll also need to provide the resources.
“I have a lot of faith in the players in our local justice system, if they have the tools.”
Circuit Court 3 Judge Thomas Newman, who runs the Madison County drug problem-solving court, said he’s not overly familiar with the details of the reform yet, but said a system that treats offenders like people and not categories works best.
“It’s just important to remember each person is different, and everyone is unique. You can’t paint a broad brush when it comes to punishment,” Newman said. “For a lot of people who get rehabbed through treatment courts, that works better than prisons. At the same time, I think the [Department of Correction] has been doing a fine job with their therapeutic programs, too. I think the current system is good, but the new one could be even better.”
Criminal code reform What it means: - Stronger punishments for violent and sex offenders - Softer punishments for non-violent and drug offenders - More emphasis on community corrections Will take effect July 1