INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A new study backed by the Department of Justice predicts Indiana’s prison population will jump by at least 20 percent over the next three years, and very few of the new inmates will be there for the first time. It’s part of a growing trend toward repeat offenders. So, what can be done to stop it?
The high profile cases have included familiar names in recent months, like Shamus Patton, who was convicted on felony forgery charges less than four years after he was convicted for shooting nine people outside the 2010 Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration. 19-year-old Eron Bonner was accused of shooting and killing 16-year-old Monquiz Edwards last Fourth of July, just three months after he’d been arrested on gang and weapons charges.
Just this week, Tony Degrafreed was arrested after police say he beat his wife Rebecca to death less than 20 years after he was convicted for killing his first wife, Stacey.
The cases have generated outrage from the public. And, they are not isolated.
BACK IN HANDCUFFS
As the sun began to rise late last August, the feds closed in.
Search warrants in hand, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency raided a home near 38th and Meridian streets, just a few minutes north of downtown Indianapolis. Inside, agents put 47-year-old Victor Wells into handcuffs. Prosecutors later charged him for dealing cocaine.
It wasn’t the first time.
Court records show Wells has been arrested at least 23 times since 1988. He’s been convicted on a wide variety of non-violent offenses, from cocaine and marijuana possession and dealing, to obliterating a handgun identification card, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated and disorderly conduct. He’s also been arrested for more serious crimes like aggravated assault, battery and resisting law enforcement.
Wells has spent more than nine years behind bars in prisons and jails across Indiana, mostly in short stretches. But, at the end of each stretch, he’s been released.
One neighbor, who watched as Wells was taken away in handcuffs from the raid, could only shake her head.
“He’ll be back,” she said, asking that her name not be used. “That’s the way they do: they go in, they get out.”
She was right.
He posted a $15,000 bond in September, and was back out on the streets until he was arrested again in December 2013. Just four months after making bail, he was charged with criminal confinement and battery, accused of holding a woman hostage inside her home at gunpoint. His bond was revoked, and he was sent back to the Marion County Jail.
But, many have been left repeating the same question: why was he ever let back out in the first place?
THE REVOLVING DOOR
To find the answer, I-Team 8 went straight to the source. At first, Wells agreed to speak from inside the jail. But, he quickly changed his mind when the questions about his criminal past began.
“I don’t want to be retaliated against by giving you all no interview,” he said. “I can’t say anything more than that.”
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, however, was eager to speak out.
“There’s a frustration level here, not just with me, but with a lot of people,” he said. “All of these examples show (it). With (Shamus Patton), you have a young man who shoots nine people and he’s out in 2 1/2 years. Really? Really? Come on! We shouldn’t allow that to happen.”
Indiana has been allowing it, and at a growing rate.
With day for day “good time,” Patton’s eight year sentence was reduced to four years. Completion of additional education credits knocked additional time off of his sentence.
It’s a common story.
The most recent data available shows that in 2012, 36 percent of all inmates returned to Department of Corrections for committing another crime within three years of their release from custody. The numbers are even higher in Marion County, where a 2012 Community Corrections report found 46 percent of inmates are re-booked into the Marion County Jail within three years of their release.
Those numbers only indicate people who are convicted and sentenced within three years.
A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study of 30 states, including Indiana, estimated that 68 percent of American inmates are arrested for some type of new crime within three years of release from prison. 77 percent are arrested within five years, the study found.
The problem is clearly worst among low level felony offenders, encompassing crimes like theft, burglary, battery and domestic violence.
A 2012 study from the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute found 91 percent of Indiana’s Class D felons were repeat offenders, committing on average 5.6 crimes each.
“Many of these D felons we’ve dealt with at a local level for years and years and years,” Boone County Prosecutor Todd Meyer told I-Team 8. “And, the way we resolve their cases initially is usually to modify it to a misdemeanor charge, and we give them a diversion agreement.”
“Hardly anyone who is a D Felon, or level 6 felon will ever go to [the Department of Corrections],” said Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council Executive Director David Powell. “That’s just not the practice in Indiana.”
There’s a simple reason why.
NO ROOM LEFT
“When we start getting toward capacity, either in the jail or in Department of Corrections, there’s tremendous pressure on judges to say — look, we can’t go over the cap,” said Marion County Superior Court Judge Mark Stoner. “For example, we know right now we’re within 100 beds of capacity in the Marion County Jail. If we’ve got lower level offenders, we can’t jail them.”
That’s resulted in increased opportunities for repeat offenders to make bail. Stoner admits he’s often uncomfortable making those decisions.
“Some of my colleagues think they’re trying to do the right thing by not filling our jails with these low level offenders, or that we shouldn’t jail these people because they have problems. We get pressure to do that. But, when we’re looking at people who are multiple, low-level offenders, we’re not doing them any favors by releasing them. All we’re doing is giving them opportunities to commit more crimes,” he said.
And, increasingly, those crimes are growing more violent.
According to a five-year IMPD study that ended in 2012, 37 percent of all Indianapolis murder suspects had a previous weapons charge. 45 percent had a previous drug charge.
For some, there is a simple solution to reverse that trend.
“Anybody who uses a gun in the commission of a crime needs to have a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years,” Mayor Ballard told I-Team 8. “Once you’ve passed a certain point, you’ve got to get serious about it. And, if you’re going to take it to this level of violence, then you have forfeited your right to be among us. They just need to go away. That’s what I believe. And, I would suggest a lot of people believe the same thing.”
Ballard, a Republican, said he’s under no illusion that longer sentences would stop the revolving door overnight, calling the approach a “20-25 year solution.” But, it would send a clear message to criminals, he added.
Stoner, a Democrat, isn’t convinced.
“We have locked people up for the last three decades. We have pursued, aggressively, a policy which says if you do an offense with a gun, you’re going to go to prison. We’ve given long sentences. It’s not dropped the crime rate at all. A ‘be aggressive,’ ‘lock them up’ policy doesn’t work. The only thing it creates is a large prison system that we can’t afford and isn’t effective,” he said.
There’s also a bigger concern: longer lockups could require additional prison space Indiana doesn’t have.
“I don’t want to hear that,” Ballard replied. “I don’t want to hear any of that. I don’t want to hear any of that. If you’ve got a gun pointed at you, you don’t want to hear that.”
Asked if the state should instead consider building a new prison, Ballard nodded.
“The state has a $2 billion surplus,” he said. “I think we could handle that.”
“If all you do is build another prison, and you don’t have sufficient resources to give them programming in prison, we’re accomplishing nothing other than warehousing individuals,” Stoner replied.
“What we need from the (Indiana) legislature is a commitment to fund programs that will reduce recidivism,” said Powell, of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council. “We know that folks that are on probation and committing these crimes are by and large unemployed, and have no resources. We also know that if you can’t afford to pay for these programs, you don’t get them.”
IPAC and others, like Judge Stoner, say they’ll seek additional funding from the General Assembly next session that would be used to expand probation and community corrections efforts, and establish new community courts for lower level offenders. That could help address overcrowding in prisons.
The group also wants expanded options for substance abuse treatment, employment assistance and education options for inmates — both inside prison and upon release.
“We’ve got people in our work release centers who haven’t had a job for months because of the economy,” Stoner said. “And, because there’s no funding from the state or on the local level to get these people to have jobs, they’re wandering around Indianapolis looking for work during the daytime. That doesn’t make me feel like the public is safe. If we don’t give them treatment services, employment situations, we’re going to put an offender back out on the street who is probably less equipped to deal in society than they were when they went in.”
Lawmakers have yet to commit to that funding. But, they have taken other steps.
New sentencing guidelines now require felons convicted after July 1, 2014 to serve 75 percent of their prison sentence, rather than the previous 50 percent minimum. Minimum sentences for violent crimes are also up, including murder, which is now set at 45-65 years.
Prosecutors can also seek expanded charges on habitual offenders.
“Under prior law, many drug offenses were not habitual offender eligible,” said Powell. “They are now. And, a habitual offender portion of a sentence is non-suspendable.”
Some say there are still problems using it.
REVERSING HABITUAL PROBLEMS
“The problem with a habitual offender statute is that you have to wait for the third felony — or in some instances, the fourth felony — before [enhancing the charges],” said Jackson County Prosecutor AnnMarie Travis. “And, they also have to be separate, distinct felonies from one another. So, if someone goes on a crime spree where they’re arrested two or three times in a short time period and then not convicted until later, those won’t count as individual felonies for the purposes of the habitual offender statute.”
Indiana Senator Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) wants that to change.
“Habitual is twice,” he said. “It’s twice. We can’t be waiting for people to commit more crimes.”
Merritt said he also plans to sponsor a bill increasing the minimum sentence for a crime involving a gun to 10 years. A similar bill he filed this year never passed through a Senate committee.
“I’m going to keep trying,” Merritt said. “We need to send a message. I’m ready to talk about more money for community solutions. Maybe we should be drug testing everyone leaving the Department of Corrections upon finishing their term in prison to give them a path on which to go so they’re not back in there in two weeks because of this addiction they’ve got. I don’t believe we tell each of the 92 counties how to handle their bail situations. It might be time to do that, too.”
“What we’ve been doing is wrong,” Ballard agreed. “Seeing repeat offenders in and out and in and out, it has to stop. It just has to stop.”