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COLUMN

Local residents could pay for state's criminal 'reform'

Like Obamacare, new law represents the 'great unknown'

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 7:51 am

Congress admittedly passed Obamacare without knowing what was in it or what it would do to America's medical system. Allen County officials are equally in the dark about the impact of a new law that was intended to update the state's criminal code but could, in fact, dramatically increase the burden on local taxpayers.

Nobody really knows for sure, which means nobody can really prepare for what may be coming.

“It's the great unknown,” said Allen Circuit Judge Tom Felts, who with three other Indiana judges will tour the state this month presenting seminars on House Bill 1006, which increases felony classifications from four to six while also requiring prisoners to serve at least 75 percent of their sentence instead of the current 50 percent. The changes are supposed to give judges more discretion and make the punishment better fit the crime, while reserving state prisons for the most serious offenders. But Beth Lock, government affairs director for the Allen County Commissioners, said a provision was added late in this year's session that has created concern among county officials here and throughout the state who must pay for courts and jails.

“All of a sudden it was like, 'Where did that come from?' ” she said, referring to a provision that would require most people convicted of a less-serious “level six” offense to be kept jailed locally if sentenced to less than 90 days after July 1 of this year and for less than one year after July 1, 2015.

And that, said Sheriff Ken Fries, is almost certain to increase the number of people in local work release and Community Corrections programs and the number of inmates in the county jail, which has a capacity of 744 and this week housed about 700.

The jail does have two unfinished cell blocks that could accommodate another 60 prisoners, but completing them would cost millions of dollars, not to mention the cost of the corrections officers needed to staff them. Fries was already planning to ask County Council for permission to hire another five or six guards (at a salary of about $35,000 each) to meet current needs and now fears even they might not be enough.

“We already have to keep an eye on the jail population (because of the threat of lawsuits),” Felts said. “This is difficult to negotiate. It's like peeling an onion. When you get into it, you discover there's more.”

“There's going to be a learning curve,” acknowledged Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, who predicted that the section requiring local incarceration will influence sentencing. “Judges are smart enough to sentence someone to one year and one day. I don't want to create a burden on (local) taxpayers.”

In theory, the bill anticipates that problem by allowing the Indiana Department of Corrections to return savings provided by the changes to the affected counties – as much as $12 million. But Darren Vogt, president of the Allen County Council responsible for funding the jail and courts, pointed out that there's no guarantee any money will be available and no formula to distribute it even if it is. The state should have studied the cost of the law “before putting it on local officials to finance,” he added.

“We're working our way through it, but nobody knows what will happen. On the face of it, it looks like we'll have more in (the Allen County) jail,” said Allen Superior Judge John Surbeck.

And just as the negative reaction to aspects of Obamacare has forced the president to make numerous changes to the bill, Richards predicted a similar fate for House Bill 1006.

“One of two things is going to have to happen: The state will share its budget (with counties) or the General Assembly will have to amend it next session,” she said.

But since the law takes effect in two just months, local governments could incur a lot of unanticipated expense by then. Ideally, financial considerations wouldn't affect justice. But as Richards implied, it would be na´ve to think they don't – or won't.

Mayor Tom Henry has often suggested that, with downtown redevelopment well underway, it would be nice to find another location for the jail. It's sounded far-fetched, but Vogt said the possible expenses implied in HB 1006 makes this the perfect time to look ahead.

“We'll be getting together to look long-term. Our biggest expense (in the jail) is people. Is it possible to design a jail that would lower manpower?” Vogt asked.

Given the millions of dollars that would be needed, the possibility still sounds implausible. But with so many smart people stumped by the bill's possible impact, you never know.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.