News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 30, 2012

Maureen Hayden: Commission making progress on state’s sentencing reform

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — At a recent meeting of the state’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, one of the members described a class D felony as the kind of crime most people have committed but just hadn’t been caught for it.

It was an eyebrow-raising moment, considering he included in his “most people” category the members of the commission — people who represent the state’s prosecutors, public defenders, judges, probation officers, prison officials and the General Assembly.

In a flight of imagination, I scanned the panel of members sitting there and began wondering about their secret criminal history.

In Indiana, a class D felony is the lowest level of serious crime; it can land you in prison for 6 months to three years. Here some examples of class D felony crimes: burglary, battery, cheating at gambling, cruelty to animals, cultivating marijuana, domestic battery, fraud, impersonating a public servant, moving a body from the scene of a death, obstruction of justice, perjury, possession of a sawed-off shotgun, prostitution and public indecency.

The list goes on and on, but here’s just a few more: criminal deviate conduct, dispensing of material harmful to minors, disposing of a dead animal, driving while intoxicated, exploiting an endangered adult, failure to warn of a communicable disease, illegal possession of a vehicle identification number, invasion of privacy, stalking, strangulation, prescription fraud, and tampering with an odometer.

There are some drug possession crimes on the list, too, including possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana, about 1 ounce.  

My flight of imagination didn’t last long. The commission member’s statement was meant to emphasize a point (I think) about proportionate punishment, rather than to implicate his colleagues.

The commission was created in 2009 to take a deep look at the state’s criminal code — which lays out the standards for crime and punishment in Indiana — and figure out what needs to be kept and what can be tossed. Since it was last revised in 1977, the General Assembly has been adding to it and altering it — often, as legislators themselves say, without considering the escalating costs of locking up more offenders or making sure there were like penalties for like crimes.

The commission has made big progress, thanks in part to people like commission chairman, state Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, who’s retiring from the Legislature after 20 years. Despite some acrimony created during a failed attempt at sentencing reform in the 2011 legislative session, Foley and others dug back in.

Now the commission is making its way through a serious set of recommendations put forth by a work group of attorneys, created by the commission and led by former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels (sister of Gov. Mitch Daniels.)

Taken as a whole, the recommendations call for overhauling the state’s criminal laws to make punishment more proportionate to the crime. They include tougher penalties for the worst sex and violent crimes and less prison time for low-level drug crimes.

The commission’s goal is to come up with a framework for legislation that would be introduced in the 2013 session. There will likely be much debate, especially over issues like the existing “credit time” incentive, which allows offenders to get out early if they earn a college degree while in prison.

It’s likely to be a messy debate, too, but worth watching.

 

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.