News and Tribune

March 17, 2014

HAYDEN: Curbing the ‘tough on crime’ mentality

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Republican Sen. Brent Steele is the rock-ribbed, law-and-order chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he’s no ordinary conservative.

Two years ago, the small town lawyer startled Statehouse colleagues when he suggested decriminalizing marijuana. He likened Indiana’s tough pot penalties to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

He failed to convince fellow lawmakers. But, as a key player in the massive rewrite of Indiana’s criminal code, he has managed to soften the crime.

As of July 1, most marijuana possession charges will morph from felonies into misdemeanors.

Now Steele has another idea that may upset the tough-on-crime caucus: He wants to significantly slow the process of creating new crimes and penalties that send more people to prison.

The idea, strongly backed by his counterpart, House Judiciary Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, would force lawmakers to justify any measure to crack down on crime that would alter the new criminal code.

Their proposal would give a little known body, the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, new power to vet proposed legislation.

The study committee would operate somewhat like the fiscal gatekeepers — House Ways and Means and Senate Appropriations — by forcing scrutiny of a bill’s long-term impact. Without those committees’ blessing, any money-spending measure is doomed.

Steele and Steuerwald can’t mandate the committee will have veto power. But, with a change in legislative rules, it could have much more clout.

The committee’s make-up already lends it authority. It’s a bipartisan group of more than just legislators. Judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are represented, too.

It meets in the summer, long before the legislative session starts. That would force a lawmaker to bring a proposal to the committee months before he or she could file a bill. That legislator would have to justify not only why a new crime or penalty should be created, but also calculate how much it would cost to incarcerate offenders.

Steele and Steuerwald have spent years working to rewrite the criminal code, stripping it of bloated language, archaic laws and out-of-whack penalties that made child molesters face less prison time than someone caught with a few grams of cocaine near a park.

They know a politician’s instincts. At a press conference last week on legislation that finalizes the rewrite of the criminal code, supporters hailed the bill as “tough on crime.”

It is — on violent crime. But it also pushes down penalties for myriad drug and property crimes. No one was hailing that.

“You’re not going to get politicians to stand up and say, ‘We softened it,’ but we did on the non-violent crimes,” Steele said. “We decided we’re not going to hammer some of these people with a sledgehammer when they need to be hit with a tack hammer instead.”

Like Steele, Steuerwald worries about the tendency to go for the sledgehammer. Tougher criminal penalties, he said, are “extremely difficult to vote against, because everybody thinks they’ll appear to be soft on crime.”

There is precedent for their proposal.

In 1978, after the criminal code went through a similar overhaul, a body was created to vet proposed changes in the law. The Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission operated until 2002, when it released a controversial report recommending Indiana curtail its use of the death penalty. It was disbanded soon after.

In the decade since, Indiana’s prison population grew more than 40 percent to 29,000 — expanding three times faster than those of neighboring states.

“We can do this,” Steele said of his proposal. “It just takes some guts.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden