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Early prison release for sex offenders irks lawmakers

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana lawmakers are planning changes to the state’s early release law in response to this week’s slated release of two convicted sex offenders who significantly shortened their prison terms by earning college degrees.

Republican Sen. Jim Merritt of Indianapolis said Tuesday the law’s shortcoming is illustrated by the case of Christopher Wheat, a former high school swim coach convicted of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old female swim student.

Wheat, 38, is scheduled for release Thursday from the New Castle Correctional Facility after serving less than two years of his eight-year sentence. Merritt said Wheat “manipulated the system” to cut his sentence to about 20 months by earning two computer science degrees behind bars.

“I think he gamed the system. And we need to make sure nobody does that anymore,” Merritt said. “We all believe education in prison should be for the rehabilitation of one’s character and preparing them for their life as an ex-offender.”

A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with Wheat’s attorney, Jim Voyles.

Wheat was sentenced to eight years in September 2010 following his conviction on two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor and one count of child solicitation. His victim was a then-14-year-old student he coached at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis.

Doug Garrison, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Correction, said Wheat was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with five years suspended and another two years in community corrections, leaving him with an eight-year sentence. It was cut to four years for good behavior and another two years and three months were removed when he earned an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. Garrison said Wheat must wear a GPS-monitored ankle bracelet following his release from prison.

Merritt said he’s working with Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, to draft legislation for the next General Assembly that would likely include making convicted sex offenders unable to shave time off their sentences by earning degrees in prison. It might also seek to prevent inmates from using previously accumulated college credits toward their degrees, as Wheat had done.

A civil lawsuit filed in November filed on behalf of Wheat’s teenage victim alleges that Lawrence Township Schools and other entities didn’t do enough to protect the then-freshman from the October 2009 sexual assaults. The lawsuit was filed in Marion Superior Court and hasn’t been slated for trial, said attorney Jonathan Little, who filed the suit on behalf of the teen, now a high school junior.

“Our family is outraged that this confessed child sex offender has satisfied an eight-year prison sentence with only nineteen months served,” the teen’s family said in a statement provided by Little.

Merritt said the slated release of another convicted sex offender – also Thursday from the New Castle prison – demonstrates that changes are needed to the state’s early release law.

Daniel J. Moore, a 53-year-old former New Whiteland Baptist Church pastor, pleaded guilty in March 2010 to child solicitation and sexual misconduct with a minor for a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl who was a church member. His 10-year sentence was cut to five for good behavior, and he earned associate and bachelor’s degrees in human services, further paring his sentence to about two and a half years.

State Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, said she also will push for changes to the early release law “to fix this terrible situation.”

“Sexual predators are a menace to our society. The pain they inflict upon their victims lasts a lifetime, and it makes no sense that these violent offenders are being released early from prison,” Miller said in a statement.

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