News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 18, 2013

Indiana looking at rewriting criminal code

Maureen Hayden
CNHI

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana may join a growing number of states reducing penalties for low-level drug crimes while increasing the punishment for violent criminals and sexual predators.

Under legislation filed Monday that rewrites much of the state’s criminal code, someone caught near a school with three grams of cocaine would no longer face a harsher penalty than a rapist, for example.

“It’s about restoring some fairness and proportionality to our system of criminal justice,” said Republican state Sen. Brent Steele, a key supporter of the bill and chair of the Senate courts and corrections committee.

The legislation calls for significantly reduced penalties for marijuana possession – though not decriminalization of pot, as Steele had advocated in the past.

Among the other changes: It increases the number of felony levels from the current four to six and spells out new rules for how prisoners could earn “credit time” for early release. It also gives judges more discretion over when to suspend prison sentences for some low-level crimes, but would add more violent crimes to the list of offenses with mandatory prison time.

The bill, more than 400 pages in length, is modeled on recommendations from a legislature-appointed commission that called for overhauling the state’s criminal laws to make punishment more proportionate to the crime. Other states, including Kentucky, have followed a similar path.

Steele said the legislature’s history of being “tough on crime” has resulted in unfair and inconsistent laws and a criminal code that no longer contains like sentences for like crimes.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tightened the screws down in my 16 years of being here,” said the veteran lawmaker. “But I also understand what we’ve got right now isn’t fair.”

Steele, a lawyer from Bedford, is the lead author of the Senate version of the bill. It’s identical to the bill being carried by Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a lawyer from Avon who chairs the House judiciary committee.

Both are seen as conservative legislators, as is one of the bill’s champions, Republican Rep. Jud McMillin, a former deputy prosecutor from Brookville.

One of their central arguments for the bill is that Indiana’s prisons house too many low-level, nonviolent offenders who could be better served in community-based correction programs that cost much less to operate. The bill’s fiscal impact statement estimates about 1,100 offenders a year would end up in local corrections programs rather than state prison.

“People who want to advocate being tough on crime need to be tempered by the fact that being tough on crime is tough on taxpayers,” McMillin said.

Steele said there are elements of the bill that some legislators won’t like because of fear they’ll be accused of being “soft on crime” when they face re-election.

The bill, for example, reduces the size of the “drug-free zones” around schools that give prosecutors the ability to bring tougher charges with longer prison terms. It would reduce the zone from 1,000 feet from a school to 500 feet.

While it restricts the amount of “credit time” that some offenders could earn by getting a college degree, it would make it easier for some low-level, nonviolent offenders to get out early if they got training in a vocational trade while in prison.

Under current Indiana law, marijuana possession is a felony unless it’s a first time offense or the amount is less than one ounce. Under the proposed bill, possession of marijuana is reduced to a misdemeanor.

“There are some things in it that could be politicized,” said Steele. “But that’s why some of the things we need to do in the legislature don’t get ever done, because we’re afraid of what it’s going to look like.”

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Indiana legislators will attempt to undertake a massive rewrite of much of Indiana’s criminal code this session.

A 400-plus bill filed Monday, House Bill 1006, seeks to streamline the current code, which has ballooned in the number of crimes since it was last rewritten in 1977.

Some key elements:

• It covers Title 35 of the code, which includes most felonies; the misdemeanor portion is expected to be revised in the 2014 session.

• The number of felony levels would expand from the current four to six; it would increase the felony level, and subsequent penalty, for crimes involving weapons, deadly use of force or involving large quantities of drugs.

• It would do away with some “non-suspendable” sentences for persons with prior convictions, giving judges more discretion in sentencing.

• It would put a monetary value of $750 on a stolen item for a crime to be charged as a felony theft.  

• Penalties for sex crimes would be increased in instances where weapons or deadly force is used.

• It modernizes the crime of computer tampering to treat malicious hackers more seriously than “adventure seekers.”

• It provides for sentencing enhancements for offenses related to criminal gang activity.

• It creates a more graduated sentencing scheme for drug crimes; penalties for possession of marijuana would all be at the misdemeanor level.

• It would reduce the size of a “drug free” zone from 1,000 feet to 500 feet. It limits the zones to schools and parks, and to circumstances when a child under age 18 would reasonably be expected to be present.  

• It limits the amount of early-release “credit time” that can be granted to offenders who earn a college degree while in prison. It restricts the use of the education “credit time” to degrees and training programs most likely to result in post-release employment.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.