Legislature tinkers with new Indiana criminal code

Two different stories by two different witnesses highlighted Indiana’s continuing struggles with its new criminal code.

At a morning hearing of the Senate Corrections & Criminal Law Committee, Neda Watson of Madison County recounted the murder of her son, Stephen Streeter, and his girlfriend during a burglary of their home. Three young men, ages 15, 16 and 18 at the time of the crime, were convicted of murder and sentenced to 150 years each.

On appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court reduced the sentences for the 15- and 16-year-olds to 85 years and 80 years respectively. Watson told the legislators that her son’s killers could be released in 40 years, which she described as allowing them to get away “with a free murder.”

The committee members responded by approving three bills which increased the penalties for crimes committed with a deadly weapon.

The next afternoon during a hearing in the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee, Jeremy Templin and his mother, Robin Petit, both of Hamilton County, testified about his heroin addiction. He eventually landed in drug court where he was provided Vivitrol, a medication that helps curb his cravings for heroin and regain control of his life.

Unanimously, the committee members approved an amendment to House Bill 1304 that would provide counseling, inpatient detoxification and Vivitrol to treat substance and alcohol abuse.

The House committee’s vote reflected the approach advocated in Indiana’s new criminal code: Low-level offenders are offered drug treatment, mental health services and community corrections in their home county instead of being incarcerated in the Indiana Department of Correction. When the new code passed two years ago, legislators emphasized the goal was to lock up in prisons the people the public fears and not the offenders who make the public mad.

However, the measures green-lighted by the Senate committee illustrate how a criminal code gets more stringent as legislators respond to public cries for safety. In addition to deadly weapons bills, others filed this session would raise the penalties for rape, dealing certain drugs, and possession of at least five pounds of marijuana.

schneider-scott-mug Schneider

Sen. Scott Schneider said he offered his deadly weapons bill, Senate Bill 92, after hearing his constituents’ frustrations with the increasing crime rate. The Indianapolis Republican talked to prosecutors to find out what action would have an immediate impact on crime and, he said, the answer was to put violent offenders away for longer periods.

Public defenders are concerned the crime bills moving forward are going in the opposite direction of the new criminal code. The legislation risks ensnaring non-violent offenders and placing them in the DOC for significant periods of time.

landis-larry-mug Landis

Speaking after the Senate committee passed Schneider’s bill, Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the Legislature is trying to address a “complex social problem” by putting more offenders behind bars but that approach does not lower the crime rate.

“The public has a fear of violent crime, that’s understandable, they should have,” Landis said. “The problem is what they’re being fed is false solutions. People believe somehow if you incarcerate a few, violence will go away. No, it is deeply embedded in the culture. It’s not going to go away and we can’t incarcerate our way out of it anymore than we can the drug problem.”

‘My children are dying’

Not every senator on the committee backed SB 92.

greg taylor Taylor

Before casting the lone dissenting vote, Democratic Sen. Greg Taylor made an emotional plea to his colleagues. He represents the district that boasts one of Indianapolis’ highest homicide rates. “My children are dying,” he told committee members, but said he has been excluded from the discussions on how to address the problem.

After storming from the hearing room, he explained he was opposed to Schneider’s bill because the sentencing enhancement from five to 20 years was too wide. A key to deterring crime, he said, was swift and certain sentencing so defendants know the penalties and how long they will be incarcerated.

He also echoed Landis, saying the bills approved by the committee did not address the root causes. Instead, the solutions lie in helping children and providing housing and work to individuals released from prison.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings testified in support of SB 92. Preventing tragedies like the one Watson experienced will require society as a whole to address the hopelessness among youths who get a gun and take what they want, he said. The only remedy he can offer is to lock up the offenders after the crime has been committed.

“As a prosecutor, I can’t get into education and the Indiana Department of Child Services. I mean, it’s all those kinds of problems” Cummings said. “All I can do is deal with the aftermath of those failures.”

Paying for the alternative

The vote in the House committee gave Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, reason for optimism.

She is not surprised legislators are ratcheting up the punishments. Heinous crimes happen and communities want justice so politicians respond with legislation, she said. Victims’ families testify in favor of the bill and under that kind of pressure, no legislator is going to cast a dissenting vote.

Yet, she said, members of the House of Representatives are supportive of alternatives to incarceration as evidenced by the committee’s vote for the drug treatment amendment.

“I’m amazed, quite frankly, with the climate of the General Assembly right now and the makeup of the General Assembly that we’re handling bills like this that are so gracious and so progressive.”

Funding will play a vital role in making sure Indiana’s new criminal code lowers the incarceration rate. County jails and probation departments will need state money to provide the programs and services to reduce the recidivism rate among low-level offenders.

“Without that funding, I don’t see how they expect this to work,” said Aaron Negangard, prosecutor for Dearborn and Ohio counties.

In his jurisdiction, Negangard said chemical addiction programs and alternative sentencing are available and working well. But other programs are going to need money and if those dollars do not come, crime will increase, he said.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a Republican and the primary architect behind the rewritten criminal code, has authored a bill this session that would provide an annual appropriation of $50 million in a grant program, administered by the Indiana Judicial Center, for community corrections programs.

The bill, House Bill 1006, passed 10-0 out of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 9. Steuerwald said before the hearing his bill has bipartisan support and will clear the Legislature.

Gov. Mike Pence has also requested additional funding for correction programs, although he wants $51 million to be spent expanding two state prisons.

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Chair of the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, Sen. R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, does not believe a prison expansion will be necessary. Already the new criminal code has reduced the DOC population and, if the trend continues, the state will not need another prison.

“I think if we only have one choice,” Young said of deciding between Steuerwald’s and Pence’s proposals, “(we should) spend the $50 million for rehabilitation.”•

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