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For D-felony sentences, history matters: Study

– Officials studying the criminal justice system have learned that the criminal history of certain defendants being sent to prison matters more in sentencing than the charge for which they were convicted.

It was one major conclusion brought to the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission by two IUPUI professors who studied the cases of all convicted D felons – the least serious category – who came to the Indiana Department of Correction during a three-month period in 2011.

Reams of data about the offenders, cases and crimes were placed in a database and analyzed.

About 4,000 D felons are currently in state prisons out of a population of more than 28,000.

The study is part of an effort to overhaul Indiana’s criminal justice system – something started by Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2010 based on troubling prison population trends.

It has stalled in the legislature.

The inference in the debate, at times, has been that prosecutors are sending low-level, nonviolent offenders to prison when their crimes and sentences could be handled more cheaply and more successfully with local programs.

But prosecutors have pointed out just because someone is sentenced for theft or another nonviolent crime doesn’t mean a short-term prison sentence isn’t appropriate. There has also been distrust between the state and local officials about the shifting of state obligations to local resources.

Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, said the issue was never about state budget savings.

“We want to put the money where it is most effective, quite candidly,” he said.

The data released Thursday revealed a mix of the intriguing and obvious.

For instance, more than two-thirds of D felons in the Indiana DOC had three or more prior convictions.

And 74 percent of D-felony new commitments had failed on at least one type of community supervision, such as probation, work release, home detention or other community corrections program.

A large number of those felons also had previously been in the state prison system.

Several members of the panel seemed especially interested in the number of D felons in prison for violating probation.

In fact, 62 percent of those in prison for violating probation were related to technical program violations – not committing a new crime. This could include missing or failing a drug test, not paying fees, missing appointments, failing to show up for a court hearing or other missteps.

Sen. Lindel Hume, D-Princeton, thought this was an area the group could try to home in on for future changes.

Overall, Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, a former police officer, said she isn’t sure whether the three-month snapshot of data was enough to spur significant legislative changes.

“I don’t know how much we can pull from that,” she said.

Indeed, even the professors were stunned by one finding in the small sample – D felons who were black had shorter sentences than similar white offenders.