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This memorial to former Town Marshal Bill Miner stands in front of the Avilla police offices. Miner’s killer was released last fall after serving 29 years of a 60-year sentence. Indiana lawmakers are poised to require inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences.

The 75 percent solution

Indiana lawmakers are moving a bill though the General Assembly that would dramatically change the amount of time convicted criminals spend incarcerated, bringing more transparency and honesty to prison sentences.

The bill is part of an effort that began as a move to reduce the number of inmates in prison. But the proposal before legislators would undoubtedly make some criminals spend more time there. Lawmakers should make sure that if they adopt this mostly welcome move toward truth in sentencing, it is accompanied by previously unsuccessful proposals to send more criminals convicted of lesser offenses to county-based alternative sentencing programs instead of prison.

Though the bill makes numerous changes to the state’s criminal code, one Hoosiers will best understand addresses the misleading sentences judges hand to convicted criminals. As countless victims and others who follow the criminal justice process have learned, inmates – unless they grossly misbehave in prison – are generally released after serving half of their time. So a man convicted of child molesting, for example, may receive a sentence of eight years but be released in four.

The bill, advanced to the full House this week by the Ways and Means Committee, would require an inmate to serve at least 75 percent of the sentence – for example, six years of an eight-year term.

Corrections officials have generally supported the policy of giving an inmate two days credit for every “good” day served as a way to help keep order in prisons. An inmate, the reasoning goes, has a major incentive not to commit crimes or engage in unruly behavior behind bars if following the rules gets him out sooner. With this proposal, lawmakers appear to have preserved a still-significant incentive for good behavior while moving closer to making prisoners actually serve the sentence they received.

Standing alone, the provision would have some problems because it is more appropriate for career criminals and those convicted of major crimes. And after all, the intent is to address the state’s rising prison population at a time when other states are reducing the number of prisoners. Fortunately, the truth-in-sentencing language is part of a much broader bill that would beef up probation and other county-level programs to handle more minor offenders in their home counties and keep them out of prison, widely considered a training ground where minor offenders learn to become career criminals.

The proposal also changes a variety of sentences to offer more appropriate proportionality, in which the sentence fits the crime. Judges will still have the authority to sentence convicts to a probationary period after they are released, during which courts can monitor their behavior as they return to society.

Proponents believe the changes will at least slow the number of convicted criminals going to prison. If no changes were made, they say, Indiana would have to build a new prison in just six years. If the law is adopted, it would be a dozen years.

Given the wide-ranging effects of the proposal, its backers have called for it to take effect July 1, 2014 – a year later than usual, to give officials time to prepare. Anyone sentenced before then would fall under existing sentencing and good-time credit guidelines.

Credit lawmakers for pursuing a criminal code update after lawmakers rejected it two years ago, and for drawing in prosecutors and others who criticized the earlier bill to help reach consensus. Hoosiers deserve to know that if a criminal receives a 20-year sentence, he will actually serve most of it.