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Low-level felons could get less prison time under plan

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An overhaul of Indiana's criminal sentencing laws aimed at sending fewer nonviolent offenders to prison was on its way to clearing the Legislature on Thursday.

The House voted 86-10 in favor of a compromise version reached with Senate negotiators. A Senate vote wasn't immediately scheduled but was expected ahead of Friday's planned adjournment of the legislative session.

The overhaul wouldn't take effect until July 2014, and supporters said they expect the Legislature will consider changes on specific crimes next year.

Bill sponsor Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, said that before next year's session a legislative committee will review concerns about increased costs that counties could face for work release and other local programs under the overhaul.

"We need to make sure that these programs we have at the local level are the best so we're just not throwing money down the drain," Steuerwald said.

Provisions of the bill would require that most inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences, which Steuerwald said was aimed at giving crime victims and others more certainty about how much time those convicted will spend in prison. Current law allows most inmates to be released after serving half or less their sentences if they stay out of trouble while behind bars.

A major shift included in the bill would have more people convicted of lower-level property or drug crimes spend time in intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs, with the expectation that will help prevent them from becoming career criminals. The plan also would give county judges more flexibility on suspending prison sentences and instead sending low-level felons to local programs.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said he expects the changes will improve the state's justice system and reduce crime overall.

"Even more importantly, we're going to salvage a lot of lives in the process and make more people into productive citizens rather than people who sap our resources," Pierce said.

The bill includes tougher penalties for marijuana possession and dealing than first proposed — a change made after Republican Gov. Mike Pence questioned last month whether the plan was strict enough on low-level drug offenders.

The Senate moved possession of between about 1 ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana from the highest-level misdemeanor to the lowest-level felony, with a prison sentence between six months and 2.5 years. The bill originally required possession of more than 50 pounds of marijuana before becoming a felony punishable by one year to six years in prison, but that level was lowered to 10 pounds.

The Senate had also backed limiting the authority local judges would have to suspend prison sentences, but that was removed in the compromise version.

Steuerwald said the options judges should have on prison sentences would be closely reviewed by a legislative study committee later this year and could be changed before the bill's provisions would take effect in 2014.

"These issues should be taken as a whole because every time you tweak something in the sentencing rules it trickles and affects everything else," he said.

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