Lawmakers look to close loophole that led to early release of swim coach sex offender

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INDIANAPOLIS – A state senator wants to close a loophole that a convicted sex offender exploited to get out of prison much earlier than scheduled.

Chris Wheat is a former swim coach convicted of sexually abusing a teenage. Fox59 News broke this story, and the information uncovered during our investigation shed light on legislation that lawmakers say needs to be changed.

Wheat was sentenced to eight years in prison. Just 19 months later, he’s out—something that doesn’t sit well with the victim’s father.

“It is very concerning to me that he is going to be back in society again far sooner than he should be,” said the victim’s father.

Wheat, the former Lawrence North Swim Club coach, was convicted of sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old member of the team.

“The entire time he was in there all he was doing was working to game the system to get out early,” said the victim’s father. “This person is going to be back in society before we know it and he should still be in prison.”

How did Wheat manage to serve only a fraction of his sentence?

As soon as the bars closed behind him, Wheat went back to school, earning a degree that under current Indiana law shortened his prison stay. Wheat was also able to apply a bachelor’s degree from about two decades earlier, to make it even shorter.

“Mr. Wheat’s playing the system cannot stand,” said State Senator Jim Merritt. “We cannot have that again.”

Now, Merritt has written Senate Bill 260 to close such loopholes.
If passed:

  • Sex offenders could not shorten their sentences by earning bachelor’s or associate degrees.
  • No offender can serve less time based on degrees earned before going behind bars.
  • Educational credit earned by a sexual, or violent offender is subtracted from the entire sentence, not the earliest possible release date.

Chris Wheat was sentenced to eight years. With good behavior, it became four. Wheat’s prior bachelor’s degree subtracted another two years, and an associate degree he earned in prison erased another year. When taken together, Wheat’s sentence was reduced to 19 months.

“We want all offenders to try and educate themselves in incarceration, but we want to treat the credits and the good time credits toward getting out differently,” said Merritt.

“What happened here I have a major problem with,” said the victim’s father, who added that Wheat’s actions changed his daughter and family forever.

He only hopes tougher laws will prevent the next Chris Wheat from cheating the system.

“Our society has to tell them that, ‘You are going to pay the price.’ If we do not send that message, we lose the ability for that to be a deterrent for other people out there considering that same type of behavior,” he told Fox59.

Click here to read the bill in its entirety.

17 comments

  • whiskeytangofoxtrot

    Senator Merritt is an ass, appealing to people's fears to gain votes. Chris Wheat gamed the system to the extreme but that is no reason to punish all those seeking to gain an education to aid in their transition back into society. Remove whatever idiotic rule allowed previous education to qualify for a time cut but leave the other rules alone. Senator Merritt probably also owns stock in or is strongly lobbied by one of the private prison companies who make more money for packing in more inmates and keeping them longer.

    • Chris

      Everyone wants to be tough on crime. Fine. Now that they are locked up you want them to "rehabilitate"… What incentive does someone have to attain an education while locked up? These people primarily do not care to improve themselves. How do I know? I was one of them. At 17, I found myself in trouble for being a (violent) idiot. I'd have never been encouraged to go to school while locked up had it not been for the incentive of coming home earlier. That incentive started my educational career. The small glimmer of hope to receive a "reward" for "rehabilitating" myself led to me learning that I did have what it took to be a productive member of society. Now at 37, I have 2 associate degrees, a bachelors, and 1/2 way toward a Masters. Never would I have ever thought of going to school in prison had it not been for the ability to earn a VERY small amount of time off my sentence. It's political hyperbole that Hoosiers fall for every time. Wake up people and realize these money hungry politicians are constantly screwing us.

  • Jane Public

    Facts: Out of over nearly 25,000 people incarcerated in Indiana, only about 3% (750) inmates had participated in the collegiate programs originally offered by the IDOC.

    Bottom line: nothing prevents crime – education is a tool that helps reduce likelihood.

    Removing educational programs, or giving time-cuts to this group and not that group for political gain sets us all up for failure.

    Eliminating educational programs for inmates simply sets the stage for recidivism: creating additional victims in our communities and generating further tax burdens – instead of tax contributors.

    Any slick talking politician, or biased news report that typically fails to mention all of the facts and places an arm over your shoulder reassuring you that they have your best interests at heart is to be questioned with skepticism.

    Finally, I worked in the IDOC for nearly 20 years and had seen it all.

  • Simper Fi

    About 8 months ago, the news media widely reported that all funding for college programs in the Department of Corrections had been cut.

    Now, Senate Bill 260 that is funded by tax-payers is being proposed.

    Why propose a Bill targeting a specific group of offenders, when all offenders have already been impacted? There are no longer any college programs for any inmates; therefore, no time-cuts for any prisoners.

    Typical political football: tell people part of the story and pass it around to make yourself look good.

    Not hard to see.

    • Guest

      Senator Merritt's ignorant reaction to a victims family that has influence with the media. If Mr. Merritt would truly consider the greater societal good, without the hightened frenzy created by Fox59 through the influence of the victims father, he'd realize the bill he's introducing is overreaching and actually harming the society he's elected to protect and represent.

  • ClanSmokeJaguar

    Now let's work to eliminate how much plea deals reduce sentences BEFORE scum are thrown in jail?

    Example: Moncy Shirley and her gang of PWT inbreds will undoubtely plea to reduce their sentences. They, by way of their stupidity, murdered two people, displaced dozens, injured even more, and caused millions of dollars in damages.

    They need to rot in prison for a long time but plea deals will be offered and given.

  • John Smith

    something is wrong with a system that when you are sitting in a collage class room with a child sex offender and a convicted drugged up dad that stole his sons trust fund $50k boths of which are avoiding prison time by attending collage on the states dime plus books and computers and calculators cell phones ……. this is bull. You screw up and get convicted and get a free ride. If you are a honest law abiding citizen and you rackup $20k-$50k in bills that you cannot default on and is very difficult to get grants to help out.

    • Chris

      Do you really have any clue what you are talking about? Because either you are brainwashed by the crap they falsely report on the news or you are completely uninformed on what it's like to be in prison. Then comes the question of where your societal responsibilities lie. Now that your neighbor is locked up for some crime and is soon to be released; what you prefer: A) they have worked to better themselves and become marginally employable, or B) spent the entirety of their prison sentence lifting weights and becoming a better criminal. Who do you want living next to you? I can assure you that I would prefer the former. And funny thing is: YOU can get the same education for free. I just think you might not be smart enough to do so, so you're my friend are an idiot.

  • awaker

    Sentencing should always be what's best for the community. The man who lives across the street from me was sentenced to two forty year and two thirty year prison sentences on the same day for sex crimes and was let out in five years, that is just wrong.

  • Sarah

    Senator Merritt needs to pay attention to his own issues. Wheat was railroaded from day one by a very rich parent.. Should he have done it..NO, but there was a lot more to this story. this girl was not as innocent as her father would think. Merritt has a tendency to shoot before he gets all of the facts straight. He has been a camera hog and always will be a camera hog. Between him and Delph, they have never net a camera they didn't love.Honestly,this has nothing to do with the Wheat case, its all about press time for Merrit

  • guest

    It sounds like there are a bunch or RSOL advocates commenting here. For those that don't know what RSOL (Reform Sex Offender Laws) are, they are a group comprised of sex offenders and their loved ones that enable them. They go around in groups commenting on news stories that talk about sex offender laws. They spew lies. Nobody cares about you "poor" sex offenders but you. If you don't like the laws, then don't go around committing sexual crimes. Society has no sympathy for you creeps and never will. Expect to see more laws, not less. We are moving forward in this fight, it will never go in your favor.

    • Guest

      I am not what you call an RSOL. But I do take exception with some of your post. Many do care about sex offenders and other convicted offenders. Many programs and ministries have been established to reach and to help them find their way. Their existence is proof that many do care. The general tone of your post is clear, you don't care about sex offenders and that's your choice. But to make a statement that nobody cares is clearly inaccurate, people do care and society does have some measure of sympathy. Please express your own opinion, you have the right. But please refrain from speaking for society.

      I do agree, we probably will see more laws, sexual offenders will continue to have a life sentence and society will continue to move toward punishment only and attitude of no rehabilitation. You and others may agree with that attitude and approach. I certainly agree with appropriate punishment for crime, but believe there should always be options available for an offender to strive earn a way out and to better themselves.

  • Clayton

    Something is wrong with a system that releases sex offenders and violent offenders earlier than their latest possible release date period.

  • Guest

    Does anyone really think cutting educational credits is healthy or in the best interest of our Indiana society? Will the State really move to a system of punishment only, without consideration for reformation or redemption? For those willing to seek and obtain a degree, shouldn't we encourage them? That to me is very sad and rails against the Christian values that Mr. Merritt himself claims.

    Shame on Fox59 for an extremely biased, slanted and inflammatory piece. Mr. Wheat took advantage of what was allowed him by state and university guidelines. I would not consider what he did as "gaming" the system (although the use of that word get's people excited and sells commercial time). But to eliminate the program altogether for sexual offenders on the basis of this case? Grandstanding, it's wrong for our culture and society.

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