Cost concerns linger for state sentencing overhaul

A plan to overhaul Indiana's criminal sentencing laws is moving through the Legislature with broad bipartisan support as lawmakers seek ways to keep violent criminals behind bars longer and give many convicted of low-level crimes a chance to avoid prison.

Supporters expect the changes will delay the need to build new state prison space, although the shift of potentially thousands of people to work release and other local programs has county-level officials concerned about being stuck with costs they can't afford.

The proposed changes have support this legislative session from law-enforcement groups whose opposition had scuttled similar efforts the past two years. The Indiana House is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to approve the bill and send it to the Senate for consideration.

One provision of the plan would require that most inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences. Current law allows them to be released after serving half their sentences if they stay out of trouble while behind bars.

"The goal is certainty in sentencing," said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville. "So courts, prosecutors, public defenders, but most essentially the victims, have a better idea of exactly what the perpetrator will serve."

The proposal also shifts the possible penalties for many crimes to adjust for various law changes made by lawmakers since the last major review of the state's criminal code in the 1970s, said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington.

"All these criminal laws were being looked at in isolation, one at a time, over 30 or 40 years. As that process rolled out, you ended up with totally disproportionate crimes," Pierce said. "You'd have some drug offenders getting much stiffer penalties than violent rapists."

Supporters say having more people convicted of lower-level property or drug crimes spend time in intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs will do more to prevent them from becoming career criminals than sending them to prison for a few months, as is commonly done now. The bill will also give county judges more flexibility on suspending prison sentences and instead sending low-level felons to local programs

Those steps have some county leaders worried about making sure the money is available to pay for more probation officers and potentially more prisoners for local jails.

Estimates show that anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 more criminals a year could be sentenced to local programs under the new provisions, said Andrew Berger, director of government affairs at the Indiana Association of Counties.

"That's a big if, because nobody really knows what judges are going to do," Berger said. "If it's in the worst-case scenario, then costs will explode in everybody's face."

The sentencing changes included in the current proposal wouldn't take effect until July 2014, which would give lawmakers time next year to make changes to how specific crimes are classified and direct more money to the local programs.

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City and a former Blackford County sheriff, said counties could face financial trouble if the state doesn't follow through with money to cover those costs. But he said he often saw people sent to prison for short sentences return to their hometowns without jobs and cut off from their families, leaving them on welfare programs and more likely to commit new crimes.

"Sometimes I come from the school that you have to spend money to make money," Mahan said.

State lawmakers say the costs to counties will grow gradually, since the new sentencing provisions will only cover crimes that are committed following that date. Berger, however, said the counties won't be able to wait on money to be available.

"After that July 1st, the costs are going to be coming on the counties pretty quick," he said.

Democratic Rep. Linda Lawson of Hammond, a former police officer, said people committing thefts and drug crimes take up the most time of police officers — and it is often the same criminals.

"Officers are kind of chasing their tail," Lawson said. "Somebody gets out of jail, and they haven't gone through rehab. They haven't gotten the treatment they needed. They're back on the street. They're robbing you. They're burglarizing your garage, coming into your house. They get arrested again."

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