Longtime prosecutors’ advocate Steve Johnson thought he was headed for retirement this spring, but he’s been drafted back into service to work on the contentious issue of sentencing reform.

Johnson, 64, officially retired in May as head of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council. But soon after, he was pressed into returning as a consultant to complete a critical assignment: Help figure out how to reduce Indiana’s prison population without endangering public safety.

Johnson’s focus is on the 8,000 offenders in the Indiana Department of Corrections facilities who’ve been charged with lowest level of felonies: forgeries, thefts, drug possessions and other non-violent crimes.

“The question we’re asking is ‘Do they need to be in prison?’ ” Johnson said. “We need to figure out who’s going into the DOC and why?”

Driving the question is the push for sentencing reform in Indiana and the search for lower cost alternatives to the high cost of incarcerating offenders in the state’s prisons.

But answering the question is “much more complicated” than sentencing reform advocates may have realized, Johnson said.

For example: Of the 8,000 Class D felons in the state’s corrections facilities, about 80 percent of them come from just 16 of Indiana’s 92 counties. That top-16 list includes counties big and small. Marion County, the state’s most populous, tops the list, but Lake County, the second most populous county in Indiana, isn’t on it.

Why some counties are sending high numbers of Class D felons to state prisons — while other counties are putting them in county jails or local community-corrections programs — is a question that’s hard to answer. The DOC doesn’t keep the kind of detailed sentencing records on Class D felons that they do on offenders charged with more serious crimes.

That’s why Johnson and others have successfully pushed for the state to start collecting and analyzing the records of Class D felons in the state prisons to find out more about why they were sent there.

Johnson will be working with county prosecutors around the state and researchers from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis to ferret out that information. The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute has provided the funding for the research project.

“Before we can come up with a solution, we need to know what’s behind the problem,” Johnson said.

He faults the lack of good data for derailing the sentencing reform bill introduced in the last legislative session. Bill supporters argued that county prosecutors and judges were packing state prisons with low-risk offenders who were taking up the expensive bed space needed for more dangerous criminals.

Johnson and others questioned that contention and challenged the DOC data that the bill was built on.

“We don’t think prosecutors were pushing to send first-time, low-risk offenders to prison,” Johnson said.

He rejects the argument, often made by sentencing reform advocates in the last legislative session, that county prosecutors weren’t willing to compromise on the legislation.

Johnson said the issue is too critical to ignore; the numbers alone illustrate that. In 1976 — just a few years after Johnson started practicing law — Indiana’s prison population was at 7,500 adults. It’s now up to more than 28,000.

“This isn’t about winning or losing,” Johnson said. “It needs to be about what’s best for the state of Indiana.”

Maureen Hayden is the Statehouse bureau chief for The Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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