State sentencing overhaul to take another year

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Legislators stung last year by county prosecutors who opposed a sweeping plan to overhaul Indiana's criminal sentencing scheme won't push the issue in this year's General Assembly.

Backers said last year's bill, endorsed by Gov. Mitch Daniels, would have saved $1.2 billion in new prison construction over seven years by easing penalties for low-level offenders like petty thieves and drug dealers who crowd state lockups. But the bill stalled after prosecutors said it was too soft on crime.

This year, with prosecutors' concerns largely eased, sheriffs are worried that an attempt to reduce crowding in state prisons could aggravate overpopulation in their jails.

"Overcrowding is a daily concern for the sheriff and … adding more inmates on top of already overcrowded jail facilities would make a recipe for future lawsuits," said Steve Luce, executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs Association.

Officials hope to send many of those low-level felons to community corrections programs such as work release, but Luce said they still could end up in jail if they violate the terms of their sentence.

Luce said low-level offenders—those convicted of class D felonies—currently account for about 15 percent of Indiana's prison population. Shipping those to county jails would add about 45 inmates to each lockup on average, he said, though in practice larger counties would likely receive more prisoners than smaller counties.

"I think the sheriffs have a legitimate concern," said Republican Rep. Ralph Foley of Martinsville, who serves on the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, one of two state panels involved in the sentencing overhaul.

Ohio-Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard, who serves on the board of the Indiana Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said prosecutors' concerns about the legislation that came out of a study by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center had been largely eased, but prosecutors were reserving judgment until they saw the final product.

He said prosecutors' main concern was that violent criminals receive strict penalties and serve more time in prison. Last year's prison legislation was amended to have offenders serve a higher proportion of their sentences, but the bill bogged down amid debate.

"When someone can get the maximum on a rape and be out in six years, that's a problem," Negangard said.

A key legislator said overhauling state sentences is such a huge undertaking that any proposal was bound to include sections that would offend various interests.

"If people are against it, they'll just divide and conquer. There's going to be things in here they like and things they don't like," said Republican Brent Steele of Bedford, who chaired the criminal law and sentencing policy study committee.

The two panels charged with sentencing overhaul did come up with a few pieces of proposed legislation—chiefly routing more support to local community corrections programs—but decided to put off the main push of reorganizing penalties, in part because the job is so big.

"It's not going to happen in 2012," Steele said, adding the panels would keep working throughout the summer and hoped to have a package of legislation ready for 2013.

He said it took lawmakers two years to overhaul the criminal code in the 1970s, the last time they attempted it.

"It's important to the prosecutors that it be a comprehensive and complete process, from top to bottom," Negangard said.

Currently, Indiana has four levels of felonies—D, C, B and A—with escalating penalties. Officials say a group has been working on converting the four-tier system into a six-level one, which would allow more flexibility in sentencing. Officials have not determined penalties for each level.

"It's not a one-size shoe fits all. There was no latitude … there was no room to wiggle," Steele said.

The challenge facing lawmakers is to make penalties better fit the crime and ease penalties on low-level offenders without relaxing them for violent criminals. And to do that, it has to get a bill passed.

"We have a big mission. Can we make a difference? Yes. Do we have the political will to make a difference? I hope so," Foley said.

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