Hard Criminals, Soft Sentences, Part III

By: Ryan Famuliner Email
By: Ryan Famuliner Email

Even if a criminal is given a harsh sentence, it's likely they won't serve all their time.

It's simply the way the system is set up, and it can allow past offenders to strike again.

Last November, two young women were given the scare of their lives at the Fun Tan on Ironwood and State Road 23 in South Bend.

A man walked into the building late at night, after business hours, as the two were decorating for Christmas.

One of the women hit a silent alarm as the man pulled a knife, and a robbery ensued… in which the two young women were bound with duct tape.

Police soon arrived, and as the man fled the store... They were hot on the trail of a convicted rapist.

Christopher Powell, better known as Shane Powell, pleaded guilty in two separate rape cases in the late 1980's and received 60 years in prison.

So how was he out less than 20 years later, to allegedly offend again?

“Mr. Powell may have been the worst person known to man, and I was not the judge who modified his sentence once or twice or three times, I was the judge when he had been given community corrections, was asked to determine whether or not he violated the terms of criminal corrections and should be sent back to prison,” said St. Joseph County Judge Roland Chamblee.

Judge William Albright modified Powell’s sentence twice, and after serving 16 years, Powell was put on work release.

Judge Chamblee handled issues surrounding that work release.

“The man did a lot of positive rehabilitative things. By the same token the department of corrections gave him credit for doing a lot of positive rehabilitative things, and cutting his sentence,” Chamblee said.

And in truth, Powell had been a model inmate - in addition to his time off for good behavior, he'd earned numerous degrees, participated in programs that cut his sentence, even made his way into the newspapers, touting community outreach programs.

His work release was at Smor Cases, Inc. in South Bend, where his boss says he was an outstanding employee; working alongside mostly women, with no issues.

His boss even planned to promote Powell; and couldn't believe the news in November.

And police say it should have been avoidable.

“When you have sex criminals, sex offenders, people that commit violent felonious crimes, should not be given chance after chance after chance… The reason these people keep getting out again is not because police aren’t making the arrests, it’s because the people keep being let out,” said South Bend Police Officer and F.O.P. #36 spokesman Scott Ruszkowski.

“Do I know what he's alleged to have done while he's been in community corrections, yea; would he have been able to do that if he was still in prison? No,” Chamblee said.

But, Judge Chamblee says, under the current system; when an inmate earns a day off for every day of good behavior, the truth is almost everyone will get out early.

Even without the sentence reductions, Powell likely would have been out before he turned 55, and would have served less than half his original sentence.

That's a reality in the system, one that judges are well-aware of.

“If they want harsher justice, citizens have to understand that even if we give it to them, there are other dynamics that operate… I put a number there that I think is appropriate. And how it's dealt with by other branches of the government is not up to me,” Chamblee said.

Chamblee calls the time off for good behavior a "relief valve for overcrowding" in prisons.

He says he's notified regularly of the number of open beds in the department of corrections, and it can be hard to not let that knowledge affect sentencing.

“I can't say I don't, but I only do that if it’s borderline to begin with. I pretty much assume as a regular routine, that the department of corrections is at or above capacity,” Chamblee said.

Which according to the most recent numbers is true across the state (there's a link to those statistics below).

“I mean how can we put everyone in jail if there aren't enough jails? You can't so there's always going to be some compromise between good and evil, lenient and severe, practical and impractical,” Chamblee said.

Chamblee says in the ideal world a judge wouldn't have to consider the realistic, economic aspects of a sentence. But, he says, right now it may be unrealistic for a judge to just send everyone to prison, without concern of where the inmate is placed.

As for Shane Powell, he's also facing attempted rape charges in last year's incident at Fun Tan, after police say they found him with a backpack containing duct tape, condoms, and Vaseline. To see our previous investigation into this case, click on the links below.

Neither of the employees were hurt in the incident.

While it is a fact that in Indiana, all inmates earn a day off their sentence for each day of good behavior, that's not the case in many states around the country.

About half the states in the U.S. have adopted "truth in sentencing" legislation, which lessens the amount of time off earned, forcing prisoners to serve most of their sentences.

State reps in Indiana have been working on similar legislation the past few years, which would keep violent offenders behind bars for at least 85% of their sentence, instead of the 50% standard there is now, but to no avail.

When the bill was re-introduced in the house last month, it didn't even make it out of committee, and the bill's sponsor says that's because it would cost the prison system about 600 million dollars a year after interest!

With the already turbulent tax situation in Indiana, that money simply isn't accessible right now.

But the author of the bill says that's a price Hoosiers would have to consider if they want to keep violent offenders behind bars to serve their sentence.

To see more on “truth in sentencing” legislation, click on the links below.

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