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Independent analysis finds DOC’s population will grow under new criminal code

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A report released Dec. 10 predicts that Indiana’s new criminal code will increase the number of individuals incarcerated in state prisons to the point where a new facility may have to be built.

Applied Research Services detailed its analysis of the new criminal code contained in HEA 1006 to the members of the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Committee. The Atlanta-based company projected that with judges continuing to hand down sentences similar in duration to the ones they hand down now, the prison population will balloon to 35,504 by 2024.

Although the belief is that the Indiana Department of Correction will reach capacity at 30,000 inmates, John Speir of ARS cautioned the committee from interpreting the number as a “construction issue.” The predicted population, he said, does not mean the DOC is facing a crucial mass.

The new criminal code is the first major overhaul of the state’s criminal statute since 1977. It changed felonies from the current four levels to six and revised the penalties to make the punishment proportional to the offense. It also calls for low-level offenders to be kept in the local communities for mental health and addiction treatment rather than being sent to the DOC.

Advocates for the new code say putting nonviolent defendants into programs within their own communities will reduce the number of repeat offenders.

“The goal is to deal with low-level nonviolent offenders in a different manner,” said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon. “As a result of this goal, we believe the DOC population should go down.”

Passed during the 2013 legislative session, the criminal code is not scheduled to take effect until July 1, 2014. The Indiana General Assembly purposefully built in the delay to give an interim study committee the opportunity to review the bill and suggest changes.  

As part of the work on HEA 1006, the Legislative Services Agency and the Indiana Department of Correction did their own analysis of the impact on the prison population.

The two entities projected opposition outcomes.

Current law is expected to increase the number of inmates at the DOC from the current 29,500 to just over 31,000 by 2024. The DOC predicted under the new criminal code, the population will exceed the current law projections by 2,000 inmates between 2014 and 2024. The model by the LSA has the population decreasing by 1,200 to 1,600 inmates by 2025.

During the later part of the recession, Indiana’s prison population was actually flat, a trend mirrored by other states, Speir said. However, in 2013, the number of inmates jumped 9 percent.

Speir said he considers that an anomaly and expects Indiana will return to an average growth rate of 1 to 2 percent.

He also made two other key assumptions when developing his predictions.

Speir said he expected judges would not suspend more sentences although HEA 1006 gives them greater discretion to do so. Also, he assumed that even though the new criminal code will have new advisory sentences, judges will likely continue to sentence as they do under the current law then gradually crawl to the new advisories.

Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck dispelled the last assumption, explaining sentencing is a process which begins with the advisory sentence. Then the aggravators and mitigators are weighed to arrive at the punishment that is appropriate.

Steuerwald said Surbeck’s testimony made an impression on the committee. The thought, previously, was that judges work toward a number. Surbeck clarified that the point of the process is not to arrive at a prison term but at a sentence that fits the crime.

The committee, chaired by Sen. R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, will meet for the last time Dec. 19.

A special committee workgroup of Steuerwald and Reps. Jud McMillion and Matt Pierce along with Sen. Brent Steele, will give its recommendations for tweaks to the code’s sentencing grid based on Speir’s projections. In addition, the recidivism working group, led by Steuerwald, will present its findings.    
 

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