Indiana sentencing change delays need for more prison space

Indiana lawmakers' decision to start sending more low-level criminals to community corrections and jails has delayed the state's need for new prison space for at least one year, officials say.

Starting next January, no person convicted of a Level 6 felony — the state's lowest felony class — can be committed to the Indiana Department of Correction, although there are exceptions for parole and probation violations.

The revised sentencing code means the Indiana Department of Correction will have between 6,000 and 7,000 fewer new inmates to take care of every year in its prison system.

DOC Chief of Staff Randy Koester said the agency recalculated its needs based on that decline in new inmates and now believes it "will push back the need for additional capacity expansion to 2018" for adult male prisoners. That's a year later than had been expected for the need to add hundreds of beds at a cost of perhaps $50 million.

State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the changes lawmakers approved will keep thousands of low-level criminals out of state prisons.

"We're trying to save prison space for the people we are afraid of, not the people we are mad at," he told The Journal Gazette.

The last estimates made public by the DOC showed an increase in expected prison population from 29,702 in July 2015 to 31,627 in July 2019. Those numbers showed the adult male secured confinement would exceed capacity in 2017.

But Koester said the new numbers indicate that won't happen until 2018. But he said the change won't actually reduce capacity by exactly 6,000 inmates because every offender isn't serving a full one-year sentence. Instead, they're often spending just 90 or 180 days behind bars.

Because of that the reduction is more like 1,800 to 2,000 a year, Koester said.

However, in the long term Indiana's prison population will rise because the state's wider overhaul of Indiana's sentencing structure now requires many serious offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentence instead of only half the days.

When Indiana's prison population exceeds its capacity, the state will need more adult male secured cell houses because of the longer sentences expected.

The DOC plans to add three cell houses to Wabash Valley Correctional and two to Miami Correctional, although Steuerwald remains hopeful the department won't have to build at all.

"Texas actually closed a prison," he said. "It's going to be a three to four-year project to get good data to see how the courts are sentencing."

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