INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers delved into the details of sentencing proposals Thursday, such as increasing supervision and programming for offenders and reducing penalties for some drug-related and theft offenses.
We are shifting from a one-size-fits-all policy to a graduated approach, said Marshall Clement, project director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
He laid out recommendations to the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission from a joint study of Indianas criminal code and sentencing policies by the council and the Pew Center on the States.
The analysis found a major cause of Indianas exploding prison population is Class D felony offenders, especially those serving time for theft and drug crimes. A Class D felony is the lowest-level felony and carries a maximum prison term of three years.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the states drug and theft laws stuck out as really way out of the norm compared to other states and cried out to have adjustments, and thats why theyre being addressed now.
The legislature will consider recommendations in January.
The average sentence for a drug sale in Indiana is longer than some more serious offenses. For instance, the average sentence for a drug sale is 96 months compared with 65 months for sexual assault.
Many states have a multitiered system, giving higher sentences the larger the quantity of drugs possessed or sold. But in Indiana, a person selling 5 grams of cocaine is charged with the same level of crime as a person selling 5 kilograms of cocaine.
The study recommends revising Indiana law by implementing various gradations for the possession and sale of cocaine, methamphetamine and certain controlled substances.
The change would mean many future Hoosier drug offenders would be charged with lower-level felonies and serve lighter sentences.
But combined with other recommendations, such as increasing probation efforts and providing more substance abuse and mental health treatment, Pierce said the overall crime rate will go down because of a decrease in recidivism.
The states current theft statute is similar to its drug laws. Someone who steals a $20 DVD can be charged with the same level of felony as a person who steals thousands of dollars worth of items.
A proposal would make theft below $750 a misdemeanor for first-time theft offenders. It would keep theft of $750 to $50,000 a Class D felony, as well as repeat offenses of any amount.
And it would raise the penalty for theft of $50,000 or more to a Class C felony instead of a Class D felony. Class C felonies carry sentences of up to eight years.
Based on the current state prison population, the proposed change would eliminate about 300 offenders whose crimes would become misdemeanors.
Another recommendation would give judges more flexibility in sentencing for Class D felonies.
According to current state law, if an individual who has committed a felony within the past three years is convicted of a new Class D felony, that individual must be sentenced to prison.
The plan recommends allowing judges to suspend sentences for nonviolent Class D felony offenses.
At the same time, the proposal would also require judges sentencing anyone for a Class B, Class C and Class D felony to suspend at least six months of the sentence. This in essence means judges cannot sentence offenders to a maximum executed term in prison.
Steve Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said the idea behind the change is to put offenders on probation for at least six months after they leave prison. This gives them some supervision and encourages them to find employment and not fall into old habits.
Its a good trade-off, he said.