Some concerned about coming changes to state’s criminal code

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Changes to Indiana’s criminal code will take place in July, but some worry those changes aren’t for the better.

WANE’s sister station WISH found out that the changes are part of a massive undertaking by lawmakers to rewrite Indiana’s criminal code for the first time in four decades.

The changes take place on July 1.

One of the main perceived benefits behind the undertaking is a reduction in the state’s prison population. The changes will help ensure serious offenders spend more time behind bars while reducing the number of mandatory sentences for lesser crimes.

“The state tried to do what the rest of the nation is doing,” said Adam Lamparello, an assistant law professor at Indiana Tech Law School.  Lamparello has been following the criminal code changes.  “It’s making sentences more proportional to crimes.  Some of their sentences give extensively hard punishments, especially related to drug possession.  I think the changes addressed that.”

There are several changes to the state’s criminal code.  For example, Lamparello said currently, someone who is caught with three grams of cocaine would typically face a felony charge and six to 20 years in prison.  However, come July, up to 10 grams will be a level five felony, which is punishable to one to six years in prison.

“The war on drugs has been a failure,” Lamparello said.  “The way to enhance public safety is to not keep putting people in prison, but to treat the underlying addiction that often drives possession and use crimes.

Part of the nationwide trend is to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails.  “Sometimes drug crimes are victimless crimes, and its at a huge cost to taxpayers,” said Lamparello.  “Incarceration doesn’t mean you make society safer, because often times people leave prison and they commit the same crimes because they haven’t gotten the necessary treatment.”

Sofia Rosales-Scantena represents Fort Wayne’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association for city police officers.  She said right now dealing drugs is an automatic felony, regardless of the amount, when it takes place within 1000 feet of a school.  In July, it’ll be reduced to 500 feet.  She also said that right now, 30 grams of marijuana is a class A misdemeanor and up to a year in jail.  Next month, it’s a lesser misdemeanor.  “I’m afraid they won’t face any jail time,” she said.  “If you have a used pipe, you can spend more time in jail, than if you had 30 grams of marijuana on you.  The state missed some things.”

Rosales-Scantena said the officers she represents are concerned about the changes.  “I think a lot of times, legislators don’t take into account the effect that the changes have on the people actually implementing their legislation,” she said.  “It’s hard to put the uniform back on and go back out when you’ve dropped crimes to barely a traffic ticket for a sizable amount of drugs.  It does make your job a lot tougher and a little demoralizing actually.”

Lamparello said the changes makes law enforcement’s job more important than ever, and people shouldn’t be as concerned.

“The changes are actually going to enhance public safety by treating the root cause of the problem” said Lamparello, who added that first-time offenders will get treatment rather than prison time.  “You’ll at least increase the likelihood that they won’t commit the same crime again.  The changes make law enforcement’s work more important, not less.”

The changes don’t only apply to drug-related crimes.  How the state views thefts will also change.

Currently, all thefts are a felony, but that will change come July.  “What Indiana did was it followed the national trend to put a dollar value on the amount of the theft,” Lamparello said.  “It recognizes that the same crimes can differ in severity.  There has to be a difference between someone who steals a loaf of bread, opposed who steals something worth $5,000.  They’re trying to make a distinction.  I don’t know if it will play out very well, but that is there objective.”

Come July, theft will not be considered a felony unless the item(s) stolen have a value greater than $750 or the person steals a firearm or has prior theft conviction, according to Dave Powell with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Powell said the new changes will present some challenges for prosecutors. Among them are the changes to theft. The new law may help clearly define a serious theft from a petty theft, it also limits the discretion of prosecutors. For example, Powell said, a habitual felon with a history of robbery or even murder wouldn’t be hit with a felony theft charge for stealing a $500 television. That’s a misdemeanor.

However, a convicted thief charged with stealing the same television would be slapped with a felony, under the new law.

“A prosecutor might want to file that as a felony (based on that person’s past). We don’t have that option now,” Powell said.

NewsChannel 15 spoke with Gary Gardner, the operations manager of Belmont Beverage, Wednesday night about the change.

“A lot of these shoplifters, they do that as their job,” Gardner said.  “If you can go literally scot-free up to $750, then that’s a lot.”

Gardner said he will have his employees take a proactive approach by speaking with customers, and checking everyone’s ID to make sure they’re at least 21.  However, he thought all businesses will suffer.

“I think it’s going to be awful for the Targets and Walmarts of the world,” Gardner said.  “Let alone everyone else.”

Rosales-Scantena also saw the change as a burden for businesses.  “They’re going to lose product,” she said.  “They won’t be able to charge people right away.  People are going to feel that they can probably go and steal more from them and not really face the consequences, if ever.  I’m sure with all the things that a prosecutor deals with, shoplifting isn’t a high priority.”

Under current Indiana law, loss prevention officers can hold suspected shoplifters for up to two hours before an officer arrives and makes an arrest. But that’s because all thefts are considered felonies and are only amended down during negotiations with prosecutors, Powell said. Under the new law, many thefts will be misdemeanors, limiting an officer’s ability to make an arrest.

Sen. Mike Young, R-I.N., said lawmakers plan to fix that when they return to the statehouse on June 17th for a technical correction day.

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