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State boosts ‘smart-on-crime’ approach

For the past several years, state legislators from both parties have been working with prosecutors, judges, public defenders and many other experts to reduce recidivism – the number of repeat offenders – in Indiana by overhauling the laws governing our criminal justice system. The result of that work is House Bill 1006, a proposal before the Indiana General Assembly that would add a “smart on crime” approach to traditional “tough on crime” policies.

While revising the criminal code is a complicated task, the policies that have driven the revision process are simple and straight-forward:

•Deal with nonviolent offenders in a smarter way that reduces the number of repeat offenders.

•Add certainty to sentencing so victims understand how long the offender will be incarcerated.

•Make sure all sentences fit the crime.

•Utilize resources that are saved through decreasing time served by nonviolent offenders to increase the time served by violent offenders.

Victims of crime would gain greater certainty about the actual time their perpetrators would serve. As proposed, offenders sentenced to prison will serve 75 percent of their sentence, as opposed to 50 percent served under the current criminal code.

This is accomplished by reducing credit time granted for good behavior from one day for each day served to one day for every three days served. Credit time for earning degrees and completing other programs is capped at two years, down from the current four years, and loopholes that have allowed some offenders to earn excessive credit time not intended by the Legislature are closed.

Prosecutors have found it difficult to apply the state’s convoluted habitual offender law, which is designed to increase sentences for criminals convicted of multiple felonies. HB 1006 streamlines the law so we can be protected from criminals who have shown they cannot obey the law.

In Indiana’s current criminal justice system, all too often low-level, nonviolent criminals are sent to state prisons. The Department of Correction spends time and money to process and house these offenders for only a few months, with little or no time to address the behavior that put them in prison in the first place.

Offenders serve their sentences and return to our communities with the same problems that led to their crimes in the first place – often related to drug addiction or mental health issues.

In many cases, they end up committing more crimes. Scientific studies of “evidence-based best practices” used in other states show that this revolving door of low-level criminals cycling in and out of prison can be broken. For a fraction of the cost of warehousing these offenders in our state prisons, a new approach of intensive supervision through probation and community corrections programs can shut down the revolving door.

Offenders under intensive supervision would be required to address the causes of their behavior through several means, including participation in a drug treatment or a mental health program and holding down a job. Minor violations of their terms of probation would result in swift and certain sanctions followed by a return to the intensive supervision. It would not call for revoking their probation and sending them back to state prison to sit out the remaining months of their sentence.

By using these proven techniques to break the cycle of crime, state resources are freed up to make us safer from violent criminals. The proposed criminal code revisions will reduce state prison costs while calibrating sentences to make sure they are proportionate to the severity of the crime.

There are four classes of felonies in our current criminal code (Class A-D). The proposed legislation would expand the four classes to six by dividing Classes A and B into two parts. Murder will remain its own separate classification.

Indiana Republicans and Democrats came together in a sustained effort to overhaul a criminal code that has not seen any significant changes in more than 30 years.

Many people from around the state have spent literally thousands of hours studying Indiana’s justice system, recommending improvements to our criminal laws and identifying methods that have proven to reduce crime. That effort has resulted in HB 1006 – a bill that carefully balances the need to be both smart and tough on crime – which deserves to be passed into law.

State Reps. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, (left), and Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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