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Criminal code committee still trying to answer funding and sentencing questions

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The Indiana General Assembly passed an overhaul of the state’s criminal code during 2013 but left two major issues for the upcoming session – funding and sentencing.

If the new code causes the state prison population to  rise faster, the Legislature will have to consider modifying sentences to not only slow the rate of growth but also to lower the costs so funds are available to invest in community corrections.

Since August, the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee has been examining the code’s sentencing grid and fiscal impact along with programs to reduce recidivism. The committee plans to meet for a final time in December to hear the results of two studies that are expected to provide a better picture of the financial aspect.

Gov. Mike Pence signed House Bill 1006, which changed the criminal code, in May 2013. However, the Legislature purposefully delayed making those changes effective until 2014 in order to provide time to make any needed adjustments to the measure.

Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, served on the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission which helped craft the new criminal code and signed on as a co-author of the subsequent bill.

She said the Legislature needs to make an investment in community corrections and probation, as called for in the revised code. Otherwise, she continued, the entire process to revamp the state’s criminal statute will have been a waste of time.

A central goal behind the new criminal code is to reduce recidivism by keeping lower-level offenders in their home counties where they would be handled through intensive supervision and monitoring as well as treatment for drug addiction and mental illness.

Money to enable Indiana municipalities to hire more probation officers and expand community corrections was anticipated to come from savings realized by having fewer inmates incarcerated in state prisons. The worst convicts would be housed by the DOC but perpetrators of lesser crimes would stay in their communities for rehabilitation.

Experts and organizations testifying before the committee were universal in their message that programs aimed at reducing recidivism work.

Yet, separate reports from the DOC and the Legislative Services Agency came to different conclusions about how the new criminal code would impact the prison population. If the Department of Correction’s projections are correct and the number of inmates increases at a quicker pace, the savings would evaporate. More money would have to go to housing and caring for these individuals so less would be available to send to local communities.

Committee Chair Sen. R. Michael Young said the state will have to spend money on its correctional system either way. The Indianapolis Republican said the Legislature will have to decide whether to beef-up appropriations for local programs or put millions of dollars into building and maintaining a new state penitentiary.  

Already, the prisons are just a few thousand inmates away from reaching the maximum capacity of 30,000. The whole idea, Young said, is to avoid building another state correctional facility.

Members of the committee said to control the prison population, the Legislature would have to adjust sentencing or possibly increase the credits inmates can receive. Most likely, sentences would be reduced for nonviolent offenders who commit property and drug crimes.   

To help answer the questions raised by the conflicting projections from the DOC and the LSA, the committee enlisted the assistance of two groups to study the impact of the new criminal code.

Applied Research Group is studying the effect of the sentencing changes contained in the new code on the DOC. Roger Jarjoura, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research, is analyzing the impact on the local criminal justice system.

“We want to see what the studies show and what the impact will be so we can make an informed decision” about sentencing and funding, said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville.

However, Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, charged state prosecutors have long hijacked the process by pushing for increased sentences and the Legislature has been unwilling to push back.

The prosecutors, Landis said, are running the system because they have all the power “and the only way to take it from them is to rip it out of their clenched bloody fists.”

A member of the committee, Landis also served on the former Criminal Code Evaluation Commission which examined the criminal code and recommended changes. He said he is frustrated, especially since the “judicial reinvestment model” of putting money into local supervision and treatment has been proven to work. But increasing prison terms damages the reinvestment model because it decreases the savings.

Sending offenders back to the local communities will be a disaster, Landis said, if the money is not available to provide for the supervision and treatment. Without proper monitoring, the individuals will likely violate their probation and land in a state prison.

 

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