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November 5, 2012

Commission approves criminal code reforms

Changes would include six new felony levels; would replace current four options

INDIANAPOLIS — The effort to overhaul major portions of Indiana’s criminal code to make punishment more proportionate to the crime moved another step forward last week.

The state’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission approved much of a 382-page draft of proposed legislation that contains sweeping changes to the code, including more levels of felonies, lower penalties for some drug and theft crimes and potentially more prison time for the worst sex and violent offenders.

The 16-member commission, which is made up of lawmakers, judges and representatives from the state’s prosecutors, public defenders, and state prisons, failed to reach agreement on some key areas. Among them: the sentencing ranges for the six new felony levels that the commission thinks should replace the current four felony levels.

The commission also pulled back some language that dealt with the credit time that offenders can earn toward early release while in prison, and also pulled some of the proposed changes on how habitual offenders are sentenced. Those issues will have to be left for legislators to hammer out in the next legislative session, which begins in January.  

But the commission pushed forward on some other critical areas: recommending that Indiana do away with its punitive “drug-free” zones that ratchet up prison terms and reducing a low-level theft from a felony to a misdemeanor.

State Sen. Richard Bray, a Republican commission member who’s retiring from the legislature after 38 years, said he wished the commission had come to consensus on all issues. But he also called the draft legislation that was approved by the commission Wednesday “remarkable.”

“This all had been dead in the water,” said Bray, who had been part of a failed sentencing reform effort in the 2010 session that was aimed at reducing the number of offenders in Indiana’s prisons. “It’s a credit to the commission that we’ve come this far.”

The 2010 sentencing reform effort was dashed in part by opposition from the state’s prosecutors, who were critical of proposed legislation that would have shifted more low-level offenders out of the state prisons and into county jails and community-based programs without much more resources.

In the draft of the proposed legislation approved by the commission Wednesday, there are provisions to provide more state dollars to local communities, including more money for community-based corrections and more money to counties for probation services.

State Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat from Bloomington and former commission chair, said even more dollars are going to be needed to make a key piece of the proposed criminal code overhaul work: the piece that would divert more low-level drug offenders into community-based treatment programs.

“I’m not interested in warehousing people in local jails rather than warehousing them in the DOC [Department of Correction],” Pierce said.

The only “nay” vote came from commission member David Powell, the executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Powell said county prosecutors agreed with much of the recommended changes to the state’s criminal code. But there were some sticking points: prosecutors opposed the penalty reductions for some of the drug and theft crimes.

The commission’s recommendations are noteworthy, as several members noted, because they were reached through a lengthy process, bipartisan agreement and significant consensus among people who hold varying views on criminal justice.

But it’s also just the beginning: Now it has to be transformed into some massive legislation that both the state House and state Senate will approve and the next governor will sign.

Danville Republican State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a commission member, is a likely sponsor of such legislation. “I think we can get this done in next session,” Steuerwald said. “There’s more support for it than ever before.

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