It’s called a small change that could have a huge impact in Indiana.
FRANKLIN, Indiana — A new law will soon go into effect in Indiana that can help connect low-level criminal offenders with resources to help them move forward in their lives by giving the courts more sentencing power.
“Nobody wants to go to jail, I get it, nobody wants to go to jail. But sometimes those are the only treatment facilities we have,” Johnson County Superior Court Judge Peter Nugent said.
Nugent is no stranger to seeing criminal offenders in his courtroom.
“Most of the cases we have in this court are level 6 felonies. And most of them are methamphetamine cases. Some of these people are in dire need of some type of treatment, and the options available to meth users on the outside are very few,” Nugent said.
Currently, it can sentence Level 6 felony offenders to county jail, probation or community corrections, but not to the Department of Correction, where substance abuse services treatment is available for inmates.
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“Right now we don’t have the ability to bring Level 6 felony offenders to DOC. That’s changing. And a lot of the people we’ve locked up in Johnson County Jail at Level 6 are meth users. and long-time drug addicts. And they can benefit from some type of treatment program that we kinda have here, but not what we need to treat meth offenders,” Nugent said.
House Bill 1004 will become law in Indiana on July 1, giving judges the ability to also sentence DOC Level 6 offenders. It’s a small but significant change, according to one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Mitch Gore, D-Indianapolis.
“The impact could be huge. In fact, I think it has the potential to be the single most important piece of legislation for local communities that has passed this session,” Gore said.
The new law will help ease the burden on county jails currently housing these inmates while giving inmates access to DOC mental health resources and addiction treatment services, Gore says, allowing inmates to focus about issues that might have landed them in jail to begin with.
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“These are not punitive sentences, they are treatment-based,” Nugent said.
Nugent said he hopes the new law will allow people he sees in his courtroom to treat and hopefully overcome their addiction once and for all.
“They’re people’s children, they’re people’s daughters, we don’t want them to die. It’s just the truth,” Nugent said. “It’s sad, but we have to do something and it’s okay.”
HB 1004 will only apply to those who commit felonies that qualify as felony Level 6 felonies effective July 1, 2022.
The Marion County Sheriff said he was happy to see House Bill 1004 become law after years of fighting for change.
Sheriff Kerry Forestal said housing these low-level offenders in county jails often adds to the overcrowding issues we continue to see.
Prior to the pandemic, Forestal said the Marion County Jail alone had about 300 to 350 Level 6 criminal offenders. And they need that space to house other, more violent criminals.
“These are the violent criminals, we need to have room for them,” Forestal said. “What if we could move people forward and if we didn’t have to repeat the cycle, I mean, we wouldn’t have to say, ‘Is this the third time you’ve come here for stealing a car? ‘ What did we do different? Well, we held them here for a little while. Well, what other opportunities might they have if they continued in a more structured environment?
Forestal said he and other county sheriffs in the state are ready to see more space freed up and more funds available after this law takes effect.
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