Criminal code update pleases some, worries others

The Indiana House passed an update Wednesday to last year’s massive criminal code reform, a measure Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, called a “culmination of one of the largest collaborations on one bill in Indiana history.”

The Senate voted unanimously for the measure Thursday morning, the last day legislators are scheduled to work this session.

Aaron Negangard, the Dearborn and Ohio County prosecutor and chairman of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Legislative Committee, said he is pleased to be at the end of the “long and difficult process.”

“Passage of this bill is critical for the public safety of the citizens of Indiana,” he said.

Last year’s reform decreased penalties for some drug crimes but increased the percentage of the sentence inmates are required to serve. All felony offenders will be required to serve 75 percent of their sentences, instead of the 50 percent when the law goes into effect on July 1.

The legislation also moves Indiana’s system of four felony classes to one that has six felony levels.

House Bill 1006 – which is expected to pass the House and Senate on Thursday – would increase the penalties for violent and habitual offenders while remaining “fiscally responsible,” Negangard said.

But Rep. Jud McMillin said the penalties would still be less than in current law.

For years, the inmates have received one day of credit time for every one day in prison, meaning they only serve 50 percent of their original sentences. Last year’s reform bill changed that to 75 percent for all convicted felons.

HB 1006 reverts Class 6 felonies to the original 50-percent standard.

Approximately 10 percent of inmates are Class D/Level 6 felony offenders.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said the bill “has been a long time coming” and will provide “sentencing reform that really has been sorely needed.”

“This bill has been described as fair to the people that have disappointed us, and harsh to the people who scare us,” Ballard said.  “I couldn’t have said that better myself.”

In addition to the substantive changes, HB 1006 contains many technical corrections of the criminal code reform passed last year. There is “a lot of clean-up,” Negangard said.

The bill also includes a “savings clause” which would prevent criminal cases from being retried under the old code.

“It would have been a disaster if that hadn’t passed,” Negangard said.

Ballard said the revisions are a “multi-faceted, more holistic approach to reduce the violence, reduce recidivism and make our neighborhoods safer.”

“As prosecutors, we believe the most important thing is public policy, and having the right policy in place,” Negangard said. “And we think this is good policy.”

The legislature hired an independent group over the summer to study the potential effect of the updated code. Negangard said the study indicated the prison population will decrease more under this package than last year’s proposal or current law.

But Larry Landis, executive director for the Indiana Public Defender Council, said his organization wants to keep the state Department of Correction population at less than 30,000 inmates and that he doesn’t think that is a reality under the new proposal.

There were slightly more than 28,000 inmates in state prisons at the end of 2013 calendar year.

McMillin said he thinks there will still be more revisions to the criminal code next session.

“One of the things I think everyone is still committed to doing is making sure that we allow local communities to devise community corrections programs that will help reduce recidivism and help reduce prison populations,” he said. “Doing that also requires making sure that those local units of government get funding so that they can enact quality community corrections programs.”

Landis said he also favors a system in which more offenders are transferred to individual counties for community corrections programs.

Last year’s reform also tried to create sentencing ranges that are proportionate to the crimes.

Ballard said there is a need “to match sentencing to the severity of the crime.”

Penalties for certain crimes often increase or decrease over time, as the legislature passes individual laws. That results in a complex criminal code where a child molester may get off with a lesser sentence than a minor drug offender.

But Landis said HB 1006 does not reduce sentences as much as he had hoped.

He said he liked the reductions included in last year’s reform – but that they were still not enough.

Landis supported HB 1006’s authorization of opportunities for more treatment programs for mentally ill and substance abuse offenders.

“But the critical issue is next year,” Landis said.

The 2015 session is a budget year, so the legislature will have to decide if – and how much – to support those programs.

“Will they put the money in place?” Landis said.

He said treatment programs reduce recidivism, which reduces crime.

The new changes will go into effect on July 1.

“There’s more work to do, but what has happened here, on this particular bill, has been amazing,” Ballard said.

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