A sweeping plan to overhaul Indiana's criminal sentencing laws cleared its first hurdle in the Legislature on Wednesday with the support of law-enforcement groups that had scuttled similar efforts the past two years.
The Indiana House Courts and Criminal Committee voted 13-0 to approve the bill and send it to the full House for consideration.
Supporters of the plan say it aims to direct more people convicted of low-level felonies to work release and other local programs rather than sending them to prison. It would also require those convicted of the most-serious crimes to spend more time in prison.
Leaders of prosecutor and police groups spoke in favor of the proposal, which they helped develop with a legislative commission that reviewed the criminal code over the past few years.
Provisions of the plan include dropping the state's current four-tier system of felonies, which range from class A, the most-serious felonies with the longest sentences, to class D. It would be replaced by a six-tier system, with class 1 being most serious and ranging down to class 6.
Supporters say the changes will allow the punishment ranges to be more refined and appropriate for the severity of the crime.
"We've tried to separate the people we're mad at from the people we're afraid of — and the people we're afraid of, we're hitting hard," said the legislation's sponsor, Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon. "The people we're just mad at, the lower-level class 6 felons, we're trying to set up in community corrections programs."
Then-Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed during the 2011 legislative session for a sentencing overhaul aimed at reducing the state's prison population. But that plan failed after prosecutors maintained it was too soft on crime and pushed for tougher sentencing provisions.
Another provision of the new proposal would require that felons serve at least 75 percent of their sentences, up from the 50 percent or less that prisoners might now serve if they earn good-time and education credits while behind bars.
The sentencing ranges for the current class A felonies would remain the same for class 1 felonies, 20 years to 50 years in prison.
The sentence range for class B felonies is currently six years to 20 years. Under the new plan, class 2 felonies would carry sentences of between 10 years and 30 years, and class 3 crimes would carry three-year to 20-year sentences.
However, Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said he worried the changes would leave the state Department of Correction with too many longtime inmates and not meet the original goal of reducing prison costs.
"My concern is we've got the sentences now too high, that we're not going see that savings to reinvest," Landis said. "There's really very little in this bill that's going to reinvest money in the communities to take care of those low-level offenders who are going to be taken out of the DOC and stay in the counties."
Democratic Rep. Linda Lawson of Hammond, a former police officer, voted in favor of the bill in the committee. She said she didn't share concerns about the plan possibly increasing the prison population.
"We need to put the very worst away and throw away the key," Lawson said. "But we don't need to house people who are viable citizens who aren't committing violent crimes, crimes against people."
The sentencing changes wouldn't take effect until July 2014, which would give legislators time next year to make changes to how specific crimes are classified, said Republican Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford, who helped develop the proposal.
"It is important we at least get this skeleton through before we start tightening the nuts and bolts down," Steele said. "This thing needs to just get through and then we'll leave next year for however people want to fight it out."