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General Assembly

Money key in attempt to change crime code

Legislation would overhaul jail sentences, probation

Pierce

– A legislative attempt to overhaul Indiana’s criminal code might hinge more on dollars and cents than sentences.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday heard testimony on House Bill 1006 that largely focused on the costs associated with the reform. A vote will likely come next week.

The goals of the massive legislation are to make punishment more proportional to the crime, make the most serious offenders serve longer sentences and divert drug addicts and low-level offenders from state prisons to local treatment and supervision programs to reduce recidivism.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said when offenders spend a short time in the Indiana Department of Correction there is no time to address the underlying problems behind their crimes.

He said over time Indiana needs to readjust the system and take savings from the state level and reprogram the money at the local level with probation officers and community corrections providing intensive supervision.

“That is the paradigm shift we are hoping the General Assembly will sign onto,” Pierce said.

The bill is comprehensive, touching virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system.

For instance, it increases the number of felony levels from the current four to six and spells out new rules for how prisoners could earn “credit time” for early release.

All felons would have to serve 75 percent of their sentences, said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, author of the bill. Under current law “good time credit” automatically cuts sentences in half and then educational credit can reduce that further.

The bill also lowers some drug penalties, including reducing the size of the “drug-free zones” around schools. And it recalibrates theft charges to allow more misdemeanor charges. The measure gives local judges more discretion over when to suspend prison sentences for some low-level crimes while adding more violent crimes to the list of offenses with mandatory prison time.

County officials are asking at what cost to them, and ultimately the financing of the bill could be its Achilles’ heel. The bill’s fiscal impact statement estimates about 1,100 offenders a year would end up in local corrections programs rather than state prison.

The legislation has set aside $1.9 million a year from the Department of Correction budget into a probation improvement fund. But local officials say more is needed if they are to help more offenders in a more concentrated way.

The Association of Indiana Counties estimated Tuesday that, depending on the program used – probation, home detention, work release, jail – the costs could range from $13 million to $42 million a year. But everyone cautioned that the projections were difficult to make given the many working parts of the bill and judicial discretion in sentencing.

“If we don’t get additional revenue, then we will have more people with the same level of funding getting worse services,” said Andrew Berger, lobbyist for the county group. “If the goal is intensive supervision with swift sanctions, you’re going in the wrong direction.”

The state would take over some key probation officer salaries under the bill, which might free up $10 million in local funds statewide.

A recent fiscal analysis also shows a large future cost for DOC largely due to longer sentences.

The bill wouldn’t go into effect until July 2014 but now would be the time – with the crafting of a new two-year state budget – to address the fiscal concerns.

nkelly@jg.net

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