Criminal-sentencing overhaul may get tougher on pot

Tougher marijuana possession and dealing penalties could be added to a proposed overhaul of Indiana's criminal sentencing laws by legislators after Gov. Mike Pence questioned whether the plan was strict enough on low-level drug offenders.

The proposal aims to direct more people convicted of low-level felonies to work release and other local programs rather than sending them to prison. It also would require those convicted of the most serious crimes to spend more time in prison.

But the state Senate's Criminal Law Committee discussed a change Tuesday that would increase the felony and misdemeanor levels of marijuana dealing and possession charges.

One proposed change expected to be voted on Thursday would make possession of between about one-third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana the lowest-level felony rather than the highest-level misdemeanor.

Pence told reporters last week that he believed the sentencing overhaul bill should send a message that the state is tough on drug dealers.

Sen. Brent Steele, who has backed making possession of small amounts of marijuana an infraction rather than a misdemeanor, said he was comfortable with the proposed change that was prompted by Pence's stance.

"He'd obviously read the bill and had problems with it," said Steele, R-Bedford. "Quite frankly, there were problems some of us on the committee were having with it. It wasn't surprising."

The House approved the bill by a wide margin last month with support from many of the chamber's most conservative and most liberal members.

Bill sponsor Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, told the Senate committee that the overhaul aimed to put those convicted of non-violent crimes into treatment and probation programs in their home counties rather than sending them to the state prison system for short stays.

"This bill is not soft on crime by any means," Steuerwald said. "We have ramped up the penalties on rape, child solicitation, child seduction, sexual battery, sexual misconduct with a minor. All those things are amped up."

Provisions of the plan include dropping the state's current four-tier system of felonies that 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 the most serious.

Supporters say the changes will allow the punishment ranges to be more refined and appropriate for the severity of the crime, while also stemming growth in the state's inmate population and delaying the need to build any new prisons.

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 Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and other law enforcement groups are supporting the bill this year after their previous opposition scuttled legislators' overhaul attempts the past two years.

However, Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said he worried the proposed overhaul will leave the state Department of Correction with too many longtime inmates and not meet the goal of reducing prison costs. Landis said he worried that Pence wasn't aware of the value of not exposing low-level offenders to high-risk criminals in prison.

"Lowering penalties and lower crime are not mutually exclusive," Landis said. "You can do both at the same time if you target the right population."

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