In endorsing legislation allowing more people convicted of Level 6 felonies to be sentenced to the Department of Correction, an Indiana House Republican said the move was the result of learning from recent data. But some House Democrats said the bill was actually a sign that the Legislature had failed in its wide-ranging criminal justice reform bill passed nearly a decade ago.
The Indiana House on Tuesday passed House Bill 1004 with a 90-3 vote. Among other provisions, the bill gives local judges discretion to sentence a Level 6 felony offender to the Indiana DOC.
In 2014, House Enrolled Act 1006 required most Level 6 felons to be sentenced to their local jails, freeing up DOC facilities for more serious offenders. But in walking back that provision via HB 1004, Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, said an unintended consequence of HEA 1006 was that Indiana’s county jails became mental health facilities for offenders with substance abuse and addiction issues.
While some Indiana counties have local mental health treatment resources, Frye said, many rural communities do not. The DOC, however, has mental health specialists on staff every day to work with inmates, he said.
Frye stressed his bill does not require judges to sentence a Level 6 felony offender to the DOC, but rather leaves the option open. He said the bill had the support of the Indiana Judges Association, the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
But Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, raised concerns about the bill in committee last week. She called the proposal “disheartening,” saying that while she understood the growing jail overcrowding problem, she felt that HB 1004 was a premature step to address that issue.
The three no votes against HB 1004 on Tuesday came from House Democrats, but the rest of the Democratic caucus supported the proposal, though not enthusiastically.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, worked on the criminal justice reform efforts that led to the passage of HEA 1006 in 2014. The idea, he said, was that low-level nonviolent offenders would be allowed to stay in their local communities, which, in turn, would provide mental health treatment services.
According to Pierce, Indiana counties largely did their part, applying for grants and participating in pilot projects to increase access to addiction and mental health treatment. The results have been positive, he said, with recidivism rates falling.
“But what didn’t happen then was the critical second part,” Pierce said, placing blame on the General Assembly. That “second part,” he said, was to provide funding to ensure each county had access to mental health treatment facilities and counselors.
“That was never done,” he said.
Pierce said endorsing HB 1004 felt like “surrendering” to the fact that the Legislature had failed to uphold its end of the deal. He called on the state’s fiscal leaders to prioritize mental health treatment funding so that jails do not remain “the mental health facilities of our local communities.”
Pierce conceded that the effect of HB 1004 will likely be an increase in the DOC population, which is what the 2014 legislation had aimed to ameliorate. But if counties are given the resources they need to provide mental health treatment locally, then there will be “plenty of room in our state prisons for dangerous people we don’t want walking among us.”
Frye pushed back on the notion the General Assembly had failed. Rather, he said lawmakers had learned more about best practices through the collection of data that was not available in 2014.
Frye hinted that his bill could possibly be a short-term solution while the state continues to study jail overcrowding and criminal justice reform issues.
Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, echoed Pierce’s concerns, noting the new Marion County Community Justice Complex will provide mental health treatment resources. But in other counties, he said, people are going to jail because they’re “sick.”
Both Pierce and Bartlett voted in favor of HB 1004. The three no votes were from Rep. Chris Campbell, of West Lafayette, Rep. Ragen Hatcher, of Indianapolis, and Rep. Vernon Smith of Gary.
Another provision of HB 1004 gives judges the discretion to suspend a sentence and order an offender to be placed in a community corrections program for the executed portion of their sentence, then place that offender on probation if necessary.
The bill now moves to the Indiana Senate, where it will be sponsored by GOP Sens. Aaron Freeman and Eric Koch.
The Associated Press Contributed to this report
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected.