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Counties worry about cost of criminal code changes

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Sweeping changes to Indiana's criminal code took effect Tuesday that will send more low-level, nonviolent criminals to community corrections programs and jails instead of state prisons, causing concern by some about the financial burden it will put on counties.

The new guidelines establish felony ranges numbered from Class 1 to Class 6, instead of the previous A through D system. They also decrease minimum sentences for many crimes, but call for the most serious felons to serve 75 percent of their sentences, instead of 50 percent.

The code updates provide for two possible funding mechanisms. Sheriffs can receive a per diem and medical expense reimbursement for felony offenders with a release date of less than 90 days. Starting next year, the reimbursements include the lowest-level felony offenders with a release date of less than 366 days. Both are subject to approval by the state budget agency.

The law allows for $11 million in grants to community corrections and probation departments if the Department of Correction saves money because of the code changes. If there are no savings, there will be no grants.

"All other states that have done justice reinvestment have set aside money — Indiana has done nothing yet," Monroe County chief probation officer Linda Brady told The Herald-Times. "I keep saying 'yet,' because I'm hopeful."

Lake County Sheriff John Buncich told The Times of Munster that he doesn't foresee an immediate impact, but expects to see an increase in the jail population as judges begin implementing the new sentencing guidelines.

"I'm afraid we are in for some problems down the road," Buncich said.

The Lake County Jail already is under federal oversight after the U.S. Department of Justice cited the jail in 2009 as deficient in health care and sanitation.

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said counties can request more money for community corrections programs. Indiana lawmakers also are also expected to appropriate money to increase programs to help offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

"I think that is the concern; will the money follow?" Landis said. "We will know once they go back into session in January."

Porter County Superior Judge William Alexa told the Post-Tribune of Merrillville he's concerned the requirement that more serious criminals serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of 50 percent could negate the original intent of the law.

"It's going to make longer prison terms, and the prison population is going to go up," Alexa said.

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