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Counties worry about cost of sentencing overhaul

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Indiana counties could be forced to pay some of the costs of a change in the state's criminal code that is designed to keep low-level offenders out of prison while ensuring the worst serve more of their sentences.

The Times in Munster reports that the Probation Officers' Professional Association of Indiana predicts as many as 800 more probation officers will be needed statewide under the changes, which are scheduled to take effect July 1, 2014.

That's causing concern in cash-strapped places like Porter and Lake counties.

"At this point in time, any increase will affect our department negatively," said Lake County Chief Probation Officer Jan Parsons.

Parsons said the changes in state law, which lawmakers approved last month, put a greater burden on Lake County's already overloaded probation officers.

The ratio of offenders to officers was 40 to 1 in 1987 but has jumped to about 240 to 1 now, she said. Federal probation authorities recommend a caseload of no greater than 70 to 1.

Parsons said Lake County has 18 probation officers, but a recent study found it needs about 13 more.

Porter County Chief Probation Officer Stephen Meyer said he's worried that the changes, which will be reviewed by a legislative study committee this summer, could further strap an office that already faces challenges meeting salary increases required by the state.

About a third of the office's $1.8 million annual budget is covered by user fees set by the state. Local officials can't increase those fees, but the rest of the budget is funded with county tax dollars, he said.

Even though lawmakers will review the costs associated with the changes this summer, Meyer noted that lawmakers won't be writing a new state budget next year. That has raised concerns about whether county probation officials could receive additional money.

"We don't know where any money can come from," he said.

The law requires that most inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences. Current law allows most inmates to be released after serving half of their sentences or less if they stay out of trouble while behind bars.

It also expands to six the current number of felony levels and shifts people convicted of lower-level property or drug crimes to intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs.

Supporters say they expect the changes to improve the state's justice system, reduce crime rates and reduce the need for new prisons.

The new code is the first significant change to the state's criminal laws since 1977.

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