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Daniels' plan on sentencing changes appears dead

April 12, 2011

A plan pushed by Gov. Mitch Daniels aimed at reducing Indiana's prison crowding by easing penalties for low-level offenders appears dead in the Legislature after running into stiff opposition from county prosecutors.

Daniels, a Republican, had made revamping of the criminal sentencing laws one of his top priorities for this year's legislative session, but lawmakers handling the bill said Tuesday they hadn't been able to reach a compromise and didn't expect more action before the General Assembly's April 29 adjournment deadline.

Senate Corrections Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said that opposition from prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs doomed the proposal from Daniels.

"Without those groups buying into it, it wasn't going to pass," Steele said. "That's the political reality."

Daniels had threatened to veto the bill after the Senate added provisions to require those convicted of the most serious crimes to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence ordered by a judge. The governor said he was concerned about increased costs from changing current law that allows most inmates to be released after serving half their sentence if they don't get into trouble while in prison.

Daniels spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said the original plan "was very well thought out and researched" but dealt mainly with low-level offenders, and once lawmakers broadened that concept, more research was needed to gauge the financial impact.

"Ultimately, the decision has been made that it's more important to get it right," she said. "We've got to get those numbers right so we can fold it all together and come back next year with a more comprehensive approach."

The bill — based on recommendations from the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center — originally envisioned reducing the time many low-level offenders like thieves and drug dealers would spend in prison and shifting many into alternative programs like probation. State officials estimated it could save $1.2 billion in new prison construction over the next seven years.

But prosecutors said the bill was too soft on crime, and pushed for the tougher sentencing provisions approved by the Senate.

Ohio-Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard, chairman of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said he was glad the sentencing changes would be considered by a state commission conducting a full review of the criminal laws.

"We were in favor of the more balanced approach that came out of the Senate but thought the bill still had a lot more work that needed to be done with it," Negangard said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, had tried to reach a compromise on the plan, but gave up that effort without a House committee even taking a vote.

He said he hoped the criminal code review commission could come up with an acceptable plan for legislators to consider next year.

"Taxpayers aren't in favor of building new prisons and raising taxes for them — even if they are in favor of throwing prisoners in jail and throwing the key away," Foley said.

The failure to reach agreement on a plan disappointed Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council.

"It means prison growth will continue unabated, spiraling costs which means down the road we have to build more prisons," Landis said. "If we do, that means either a tax increase or you have to significantly cut other services the state provides."

Steele, the Senate committee chairman, said he hoped more time studying possible sentencing changes would give lawmakers better information on the impact to prison population and costs to the state.

"What we've gotten so far has just been pitiful as far as getting a clear picture of where we stand," Steele said.

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