Sentence reductions for drug dealers spark new debate

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — Some of Indiana’s top cops are voicing new concerns that a change in Indiana’s criminal sentencing guidelines may cause a new spike in crimes related to heroin abuse. The comments came during a round-table discussion that included law enforcement agencies and prosecutors from across the state.

The dilemma revolves around dealers.

The new criminal sentencing guidelines that took effect Tuesday are designed to both help clear crowded prison space, and provide new options for rehabilitation and treatment for drug offenders.

But, some prosecutors and police officers worry the changes may also may add a new spark to a disturbing new crime trend uncovered last month by I-Team 8.

NEW CRIME CONNECTIONS

Drug Task Force agents have made 45 high-level heroin trafficking arrests in Central Indiana during the last fiscal year, seizing 42 pounds of the drug off the streets. And, the numbers get even more troubling.

“We’ve seen the price of heroin [on the streets] drop by 50 percent in the last five years,” said Dennis Wichern, Drug Enforcement Administration Assistant Special Agent in Charge in Indianapolis. “The heroin is almost exclusively coming from Mexico now, and it’s extremely pure. It’s not uncommon to see it 80 percent to 90 percent pure. That’s fueling a massive rise in overdoses.”

Law enforcement in Hamilton and Boone counties met in late May to formulate a new rapid response after an I-Team 8 investigation linked hundreds of local burglaries, thefts and robberies to a sudden rise in heroin abuse. The analysis of crime data by I-Team 8 showed a sudden surge in cheap, highly pure and easily available heroin directly fueling spikes in other crimes across Marion County. The crimes occurred in every township on every side of the city.

Below is a map of arrests tied to heroin in your neighborhood on an interactive map. The “H” represent a heroin arrest and the dots are other crimes. Click on either icon to see what crimes are related to each heroin arrest. (Disclaimer: Arrests do not equal convictions)

And, the crime connections aren’t limited to just Indianapolis.

Burglaries, robberies, assaults and dozens of other crimes reported across Central Indiana are being linked to heroin dealers, addicts or suspects.

The numbers are also being reflected in the Marion County Jail.

Eighty-four inmates were treated for heroin withdrawal symptoms while behind bars there in June alone, Sheriff John Layton said. That’s an 800 percent increase from just two years ago. Jail medical staff have also treated 26 pregnant female inmates for heroin withdrawal symptoms so far in 2014, Layton said.

At a meeting convened by Congresswoman Susan Brooks and Indiana Senator Jim Merritt Tuesday, law enforcement officers repeated their grave concerns.

“We’ve saved 12 lives so far in Marion County using (overdose drug) Narcan. That’s up 80 percent in the last three months. We are saving lives. But, we’re saving the same people over and over,” said Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs.

For Rep. Brooks, R-Carmel, the evidence is overwhelming.

“This is not just in Indianapolis. This is not just in Indiana. This is a national problem. And, I’m one that believes we need to commit national resources to this problem. It’s resources and it is money. How do we make sure there are grant programs for our law enforcement officers for treatment courts? I think there was, for the most part, an agreement that treatment courts are very beneficial. We need to make sure they receive funding. And, I think we also heard that there’s a lack of funding for people who don’t have insurance that will pay for treatment,” she said.

“There has to be a plan going into the system, and coming out of the system. And, that’s what you heard today. What should be the sentencing guidelines for a deeper in offender versus someone who’s a moderate substance abuser? What are the drug courts, the mental health courts doing? These are the discussions we need to be having,” said IMPD Chief Rick Hite.

SENTENCING CONCERNS

Some remain worried that intervention efforts will be hampered by new state guidelines that could allow even high level drug dealers to see sentences as low as six years. With good behavior credits, such dealers could be released in just 4 1/2 years.

“I speak with our officers, and they can’t believe this is where the penalties are going,” said Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings. “To say they should get 4 1/2 years in prison, that’s absurd to me.”

He wasn’t the only one at the meeting voicing concerns.

“Our organization represents over 400 narcotics officers across the state of Indiana, and I think they all have concerns,” said Dearborn County Prosecutor’s Chief Investigator Tom McKay, who also serves as President of the Indiana Drug Enforcement Association. “I’m on the border of the state of Indiana. And, the drug laws of the state of Indiana have always been strong enough to be a big deterrent to people coming in from other states — Kentucky and Ohio — to deal drugs in our communities. We’ve actually had them in taped conversations saying the reason why they don’t come is they don’t want to go to Indiana to sell their drugs because they’ll spend more time in jail. That’s changed now.”

And, prosecutors aren’t the only ones who have taken notice.

“Our gang intelligence unit has heard them talking,” Sheriff Layton told the group. “They’re not as dumb as we think they are. They see these laws coming. And they see that it’s going to be easier in Indiana now. They’re surely educated on it, to the point where it brings alarm to us.”

“I certainly hope that our judges use the discretion they’ve been given to send a strong message that drug traffickers — those that are selling — are punished harshly. Because, that will be a huge problem if suddenly the drug traffickers have very short sentences,” Brooks agreed.

INTERIM SOLUTIONS

The new sentencing guidelines were not designed to cut drug dealers a break, but may not have been designed with all available information, Merritt said.

“All the information that the re-codification was based on did not take into consideration heroin,” he said. “Heroin has hit us hard just in the last couple years. And, that study took two years to put through the legislature. Yes, it does concern me. And, we are constantly talking about sentencing guidelines and enhancements.”

Some point out there are other “outside” options available.

“It does make us look toward higher sentencing guidelines, RICO [racketeering] acts, conspiracies, gang enhancements. These are things we know are on the books as well. So, we’re prepared to deal with that as we approach it,” Hite said.

But, those outside options may not be isolated for long.

Merritt said he’s prepared to take “quick action” at the Statehouse if the new guidelines do end up hurting more than they help.

“I will be taking the next 6-8 months to see what the outcomes are with the current law that starts today, and we’re going to have to recoup to find out what holes we have, and where we need to bolster the law,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say you’ll see new drug legislation on this next session.”

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