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Concerns exist over proposed sentencing bill

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The balance struck between the opposing demands of the prosecutors and public defenders in the proposed criminal sentencing bill may be upended during the 2014 legislative session, which could force Indiana to squeeze hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget to build a new prison.

During the 2013 session, the Indiana General Assembly passed a new criminal code that changed the felony levels and restored proportionality that had gotten misaligned after years of tinkering by the Legislature. It had gotten to the point where possessing three grams of cocaine carried a higher penalty than rape.

The Legislature then assigned the interim group, the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, the task of developing sentencing guidelines for the various offenses along with examining the issue of recidivism among Indiana inmates.

At its final meeting Dec. 19, the committee approved a draft proposal of a sentencing bill by a 9 to 4 vote. Sen. Brent Steele, who chaired a subgroup charged with changing the penalty portion of the revamped code, described the sentencing policy as the key to making the entire criminal statute work.

The Bedford Republican said the workgroup took ideas from prosecutors and public defenders to craft a bill that would help the new criminal code achieve its goal of lowering the prison population in the Indiana Department of Correction and providing effective treatment alternatives for low-level offenders.

The other members of the subgroup were Republican Reps. Greg Steuerwald and Jud McMillin and Democratic Rep. Matt Pierce.

Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the four legislators approached their work from the same philosophical stance – offenders whom society is afraid of should be treated differently than lawbreakers whom society is mad at. Then they incorporated the best ideas into the bill.

“We weren’t trying to pick winners and losers, we were trying to pick the best policy,” he said.

Overcrowding versus public safety

Study committee members Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, and Randy Koester, deputy commissioner of re-entry for the DOC, voted against the measure. They cited concerns that the sentencing structure would increase prison population and overload the state’s penal system.

At roughly 29,500 prisoners, the DOC is very close to capacity. Reaching and exceeding 30,000 is believed to be the tipping point where the state would have to build more housing units or a whole new penitentiary.

A study by Applied Research Services Inc. concluded that the new criminal code contained in HEA 1006 would actually explode the state’s prison population to 35,504 in 10 years.

This mirrored the DOC’s prediction that the reworked criminal code would increase the number of people behind bars. Koester maintained the sentencing proposal did not go far enough to reduce costs or lower the incarceration totals.

He said there are a couple of ways to change HEA 1006 but the focus should be on credit time, which is directly linked to the offender’s period of incarceration.

“Their length of stay is really what drives how many prison beds we need and how many prison facilities we need,” Koester said. “And those lengths of stays, if they get adjusted upward, eventually that creates a stacking effect and we need to create new capacity, new prisons.”

Yet, as the bill moves through the Legislature, leaving the credit-time provision as requiring felons to serve at least 75 percent of their sentences is critical to retaining the support of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Committee member David Powell, executive director of the IPAC, said adjusting the credit time downward would be detrimental to the prosecutors’ main goal of public safety. Lowering penalties and releasing offenders from jail does not improve the safety of the public, he said.

Even so, Powell voted yes on the sentencing bill. He noted prosecutors got the three main things they wanted: increasing the ranges of the advisory sentences as well as upping the nonsuspendible sentences, and limiting the number of times an offender may apply for sentence modification.

IPAC plans to continue pushing the Legislature to raise the penalties for drug dealing up one level. This would still be lower than the current penalty, Powell said.

Prosecutors would likely find a receptive audience in the General Assembly. But this could lead to the sentencing bill’s proportionality being undone.

“No doubt, if you have a local prosecutor telling constituents and legislators something is making the public unsafe, that’s a problem,” Pierce said.

The subgroup has been working hard with prosecutors and listening to their concerns, Pierce said. But the county prosecutors are all independent operators who are not invested in any compromise bill and therefore could spook legislators with their concerns.

Surprised by cost

In addition to the sentencing revisions, the Legislature will also consider a request for funding for treatment programs. HEA 1006 calls for low-level offenders to be kept in their home communities and provided services for the addiction or mental health issues they have. Advocates contend this will reduce the state’s recidivism rate, lower the crime rate, save money and help offenders salvage their lives.

A review of Indiana’s new criminal code by the American Institutes for Research found local jurisdictions are apprehensive they will get stuck footing the bill for the treatment programs and additional staff. The study estimated potentially 15,000 more offenders would be kept in the local jails under HEA 1006. Many of these individuals would be at high risk for problems involving substance abuse, criminal attitudes, education, employment and finances.

Consequently, treatment is the linchpin to accomplishing the goals of the new criminal code, said AIR principle researcher G. Roger Jarjoura. Currently, low-level offenders have chances to reform instead of being sent immediately to the DOC. However, they are not doing well with these second chances because the programs and resources are not available to help them.

“We don’t want just treatment and no supervision and we don’t want just supervision and not treatment,” Jarjoura said of reforming the system. “We’ve got to have both. But treatment has to be there and that’s the gap in most places. They just don’t have the treatment there.”

Jarjoura set a conservative price tag for operating such programs across the state at $10.5 million annually. Although the cost could rise if the programs are successful and more offenders are funneled through them, the increase would be balanced by a decrease in costs at the state level that will enable funds to be shifted to the local communities rather than having to look for a new source of revenue.

The cost estimate surprised Pierce and Powell as being lower than they expected.

Pierce acknowledged the fiscal committees in the Legislature will have to be assured that the provisions in HEA 1006 to bolster local services have been well-researched and will focus on instituting evidence-based practices and accountability.

With a low cost of $10.5 million, Pierce thinks the fiscal groups will find a way to fund the programs.•
 

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  1. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

  2. They say it was a court error, however they fail to mention A.R. was on the run from the law and was hiding. Thus why she didn't receive anything from her public defender. Step mom is filing again for adoption of the two boys she has raised. A.R. is a criminal with a serious heroin addiction. She filed this appeal MORE than 30 days after the final decision was made from prison. Report all the facts not just some.

  3. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

  4. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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