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General Assembly

Update of crime code fuels fears

Lawmakers worry about rise in costs, who will pick up bill

Long

– Years in the making, a legislative attempt to revamp Indiana’s criminal code is still plagued with financial fears.

First, will the changes actually end up adding to the state’s prison population, meaning no savings? And if more low-level, non-violent offenders are sent to local community corrections programs, how do counties pay for it?

“We’re going to have to find an answer for that … or we may be delayed again, and I hope not. I think there are a lot of good things in this bill,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

The process started back in 2011 under former Gov. Mitch Daniels but hit roadblocks along the way – largely in the form of prosecutors who felt the changes were too easy on criminals.

But last year the legislature pushed forward and passed House Bill 1006, which touched virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system – including drug sentences, prison credit time and local community corrections programs.

The goals of the massive measure are to make punishment more proportional to the crime, force the most serious offenders to serve longer sentences and divert drug addicts and low-level offenders from state prisons to less expensive local treatment and supervision programs to reduce recidivism.

The bill increased the number of felony levels from four to six and spelled out new credit-time rules for early release. All felons would have to serve 75 percent of their sentences, as opposed to the current 50 percent. A few severe crimes would require 85 percent.

At the same time, the bill was designed to give local judges more discretion over when to suspend prison sentences for some crimes, which means some offenders would skip prison and stay in local community corrections programs.

The bill passed but is not effective until July 1 of this year. That left lawmakers more time over the summer to grapple with funding questions.

Now they are back with House Bill 1006 Part Two.

Over the summer an outside consultant was hired to gauge the effect of the law passed last year on the prison population.

It was needed because the Indiana Department of Correction and Legislative Services Agency – nonpartisan fiscal body – used different methodologies and had very different projections for the effect on the prison population.

Applied Research Services out of Georgia found that under the bill passed last year the state DOC population would actually rise from the expected 34,120 in 2024 to 35,504.

That doesn’t seem like a large difference but Indiana is on the cusp of needing a new prison, several lawmakers said.

The cost of building one ranges in the hundreds of millions to build and tens of millions to run every year.

So Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, offered an amendment in committee this year to try to mitigate that.

The biggest change was to revert back to inmates serving 50 percent of their sentence for lower level crimes instead of the proposed 75 percent set to go into place.

But other modifications were made too – walking back some of what was done last year to lessen sentences. For instance, it increased advisory sentences for some crimes; increased sentences for drug crimes and mandated minimum sentences for habitual offenders.

McMillin noted that the drug sentences went up compared with the bill passed last year but are still lower than they are in current law.

“This is a comprehensive piece of work that for the most part people are happy with,” he said.

But Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, a coauthor of the legislation, voted against his own bill last week because of the changes. He believes McMillin made too many concessions to county prosecutors “in order to keep them from beating up on us politically.”

“There are some good things in the bill but when you add it all up the negatives are now outweighing the positives,” Pierce said.

He noted a new prison is coming soon and there is still no money for the local level to make the whole program work.

“It’s going to create a huge crash-and-burn train wreck,” Pierce said.

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the bill isn’t “reform” anymore.

“We’re going in the opposite direction now,” Landis said.

But Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, the author, defended the changes, noting while sentences for habitual offenders increased fewer people will be eligible for that status.

And he said it reduces about 60 crimes, while eliminating two or three, and elevates about 20 crimes.

“Last year we knew we would need to tweak it,” he said.

He also points to a new projection from Applied Research Services on the bill version that passed the House last week that brought the prison population estimate for 2024 down to 33,189 – lower than under current law or the program passed last year.

And the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council has finally gotten on board – issuing a press release that the group supports the amended House Bill 1006.

“This bill gives prosecutors the tools necessary to keep our communities safe from violent and repeat offenders,” the release said.

But there’s still the issue of funding for local governments too.

McMillin said repeatedly that nothing in the bill “requires” judges to sentence Hoosiers to less time or to probation and home detention. But that is what lawmakers are hoping since it is the goal of the legislation.

“We have to be careful we aren’t taking on an unfunded mandate,” said Beth Lock, lobbyist for Allen County. “We want to keep people local and give them services to reduce recidivism. But we need money to expand our programs.”

She also noted some capital concerns given that the Allen County Jail often floats near maximum capacity. She said additional bed space can be opened up on the third floor but it would cost about $2 million.

A new estimate this week said locals will need $10.5 million, though it’s unclear if that is an initial startup figure or annual help. “We’re going to have to find a way to pay for it,” Long said.

The action on the revamped bill now moves to the Senate.

nkelly@jg.net

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