Indiana lawmakers are trying to find the money to help counties handle more low-level felons in work release and other local programs rather than send them to state prison.
The issue is expected to be on the table when the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission meets Thursday at the Statehouse.
The commission's work is part of an effort started by Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2010 to overhaul Indiana's criminal justice system. The sentencing overhaul has stalled in the Legislature the past two years, but state prisons are near capacity and if nothing is done the state might have to build more prisons or release inmates earlier.
Some legislators believe some nonviolent offenders could be handled more cheaply and more successfully with local programs, but the idea has been opposed by prosecutors, who argue that prison is appropriate in some nonviolent cases.
Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville and chairman of the commission, said some counties already are choosing to keep certain low-level felons at the local level.
"We've been doing that for years," said Dearborn-Ohio County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard, who serves on the board of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
A study by two professors from IUPUI reviewed by the panel in September found that most Class D felons in the Indiana Department of Correction had three or more prior convictions. About half of those were sent to prison due to probation or parole violations rather than fresh crimes, said criminologist G. Roger Jarjoura and sociologist Thomas D. Stucky, the study's authors.
The same study showed that a majority of those who had violated probation had committed technical violations such as missing appointments or failing a drug test, and not committed new crimes.
"Everybody says that's a waste of money, why don't we just keep them in the counties," commission member Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said Tuesday. "But to do that you're going to increase the caseload on the county level."
But Negangard said the study "has shown that we're putting the right people in prison."
"This idea of someone stealing a candy bar and going to prison is just not true," he said.
Officials say cash-strapped counties, still reeling from plummeting tax revenues due to the recession, can't afford the extra load on their community corrections programs.
"It is a funding issue with us," said David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties. "If adequate funds are tied to the offenders so we have resources for proper programs, we will be OK with the issue."
The proposal to be considered by the commission would shift $1.9 million from the prison agency budget into grants to help local governments pay for innovative correctional programs, Foley said.
"If we want to encourage counties to adopt best practices and reduce recidivism, improve public safety, then we've got to spend a little money to achieve those goals," he said.
Botorff said officials figure the sources for the funds could include state savings from housing fewer prisoners, court fees and diversion fees, but no one knows for sure whether that amount would be adequate to cover the counties' increased costs.
"It's not enough, but I think it's doable," Foley said.
Randy Koester, the prison agency's deputy commissioner of re-entry, said one reason so many low-level felons are confined in state prisons is because laws that don't allow judges to suspend their sentences, often because they have prior convictions. Foley questioned the wisdom of automatically sending people to prison when their prior records include alcohol- or traffic-related offenses.
"Tough on crime comes with a cost," Bottorff said. "Maybe we've reached a time where we need to reevaluate these mandatory sentences."
Foley said the legislation his panel is working on would give local authorities more flexibility in tailoring individual sentences.
"This person needs his feet nailed to the floor, and this person needs to go to work," he said.
Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson said the decision on sentencing change was up to legislators, but moving the emphasis to community corrections for low-level criminals appeared to have merit.
"It appears a robust program of community corrections and intensive probation supervision offers the promise of increased public safety, reduced recidivism and tremendous savings to taxpayers," Dickson said in a statement. "All of this is consistent with the Indiana Constitution which affirms principals of reformation — not vindictive justice."
Criminal Code Evaluation Commission member Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the panel could recommend changes to the Legislature, but the decision would be up to the House and Senate committees that decide state spending.
"Obviously, counties are strapped," Pierce said.