Criminal law committee sends sentencing bill to Legislature

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What was called the key to making Indiana’s new criminal code work has received a nod of approval and is now headed to the Legislature.

The Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee concluded its work Dec. 19 by approving a handful of proposed bills, including one on sentencing. Committee Chair, R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, said he felt good about what the interim group was able to accomplish this summer and fall.

Much of the focus of the committee’s agenda has been on reducing the rate of recidivism in the state and devising a sentencing grid for the new criminal code contained in HEA 1006, passed during the 2013 session. Sentencing became the hot-button issue as prosecutors pushed for stiffening the penalties and public defenders advocated for lowering the maximum prison terms for low-level offenders.

Young appointed four committee members – Republicans Sen. Brent Steele, and Reps. Greg Steuerwald and Jud McMillin, along with Democrat Rep. Matt Pierce – to draft changes to the sentencing portion of HEA 1006.

The bill’s provisions include:
* limiting the number of times an offender may file a petition to modify a sentence
* removing the requirement that courts hold a hearing on petitions to modify
* requiring additional prison terms for habitual offenders
* increasing advisory sentences for Level Three, Four and Five felonies
* increasing the number of crimes for which sentences are nonsuspendible
* requiring education credit time be deducted from the release date
* removing the requirement that the courts explain their reasoning when imposing the advisory sentences

Steele, chair of the sentencing workgroup, said the four legislators took ideas from prosecutors and public defenders to craft a bill that would lower the inmate population at the Indiana Department of Correction and provide effective treatment alternatives for low-level offenders.

He said sentencing policy is the key to making HEA 1006 work.

The committee passed the draft on a 9 to 4 vote. David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council voted yes. Both 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 the prison population and overload the state’s penal system.

The committee also unanimously approved a draft proposal that established a mental-health pilot project in Marion County to provide mental health and addiction services to offenders who are released from prison.

A bill establishing another pilot project in Marion County drew heavy opposition. Authored by Young, the measure would create a three-year program to consolidate community corrections and the probation department.

Stakeholders in the criminal justice system asked the committee to scrap the bill and allow them to write the legislation. They were concerned about what they saw as a top-down approach.

Young emphasized the bill will only impact Marion County and that he intends to listen to the stakeholders to improve the draft during the legislative session. Other committee members noted the measure was imperfect but it offered a good starting point to craft something better.

The proposed legislation narrowly passed with an 8 to 5 vote.

Finally, the committee unanimously approved a proposal by Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, to study the underreporting of certain crimes.

Hale’s bill requires the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana to study the underreporting of crimes against children. It also requires the Indiana Department of Health or its Office of Women’s Health to conduct a study of the number of victims of domestic and sexual violence and why these crimes are underreported.   


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