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General assembly

Senate panel OKs grants to offset sentencing guideline changes

– A key Senate panel tried to address fiscal concerns of a criminal sentencing overhaul Thursday.

The Appropriations Committee created a mechanism that would allow up to $11 million to be funneled back through grants to local community corrections or probation services.

But the money is not guaranteed. It materializes only if the Indiana Department of Correction reaps expected savings from a reduced prison population.

The legislature could provide more solid funding next year when crafting a new two-year state budget.

“The language is not a direct appropriation,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. “That’s probably the best we can do this year.”

The legislation passed committee 9-2 and heads to the full Senate.

Last year, the legislature passed House Bill 1006, which covered 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 crimes, 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. It also required more felons to serve 75 percent of their sentences, as opposed to the current 50 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.

That bill isn’t effective until July 1 of this year. That left lawmakers more time over the summer to grapple with funding questions.

And now they are back with House Bill 1006 Part 2.

It has been a constant balancing act of trying to increase sentences for serious crimes while putting fewer low-level offenders in prison.

The biggest problem has been conflicting projections on how the measure will affect the prison population for the Indiana Department of Correction.

In addition to the tentative funding mechanism, Kenley’s amendment to the legislation decreased maximum sentences for four of the felony classifications. For instance, a Level I felony would have a maximum of 40 years in prison instead of 50 years.

The fiscal effect is still unclear, something Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said is to be expected.

“Until it actually hits the ground we won’t know how judges and prosecutors use it and how it performs,” he said. “Keep your eye on it as it plays out in the future. I hope it does what we think it will do.”