That’s significant, because in Indiana, unlike many states, the threat of prison still hangs over marijuana possession. The Indiana prison system processed more than 400 inmates in 2011 whose most serious offense was a felony possession charge.
The proposed changes are contained in a 422-page proposed overhaul of Indiana’s criminal code, a document arrived at through four years of summer study sessions, failed legislation and research — a bill with a stated the goal of making punishment more proportionate to the crime. Its backers say the goal is to reserve prison for the most serious offenders, while getting drug addicts and low-level offenders into treatment to reduce recidivism.
“What’s fair is what’s right, and this bill makes our laws more fair,” Steele said.
Steele, the influential conservative chairman of the Senate courts and corrections committee, made headlines late last year when he called for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. He still supports the idea, saying it would save courts and prosecutors money by not having to go after small-time users. But he decided it wasn’t politically palatable to his conservative colleagues.
So he pulled back on language he wanted to see in the larger, criminal-code reform bill that would have made possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less just a class C infraction, punishable with a $500 fine and no jail time.
“Where I come from, $500 is serious money,” said Steele. “Maybe to the big boys here Indianapolis it’s not much, but down home it is.”
Like Steele, Tallian questions the need to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as a criminal offense, saying each year, Indiana courts have to process between 12,000 and 15,000 marijuana possession cases. She questioned how valuable those prosecutions are to society, when studies show essentially no change in the past 40 years in marijuana use by college students.