Anti-crime bills imposing longer sentences advance to House

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Indiana prosecutors and law enforcement officials are backing a package of anti-crime bills that would impose harsher sentences for violent offenders, but opponents question whether the measures will effectively deter criminal activity.

All five of the Republican-backed bills swept through the full Senate without any major opposition and now head to the House for consideration.

The "crime-reduction package" comes in the wake of recent police shootings in the state and an increase in homicides in Indianapolis. Each bill would address specific law enforcement and criminal justice issues, including limiting record expungements for repeat offenders, increasing police funding and creating harsher sentences for violent crimes.

Republican Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, is sponsoring a bill that would provide an additional 20-year sentence for crimes in which a gun was pointed at or used against a police officer.

Preliminary data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund show firearms-related incidents were the leading cause of death among law enforcement officers in 2014, accounting for 50 deaths. That's a 56 percent increase over 2013, when 32 officers were killed.

"People who would shoot at a police officer, they would shoot at me too," Young said. "People in public safety want to have some tools to get these people behind bars."

Dearborn and Ohio County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard said pointing a gun at an officer is a Level 6 felony, the lowest-level felony crime in Indiana, and can be dropped to a misdemeanor if the gun isn't loaded.

A sentence for this is "virtually nothing," Negangard said.

"As a prosecutor, I can tell you that it is certainly advantageous to have penalty enhancements when people choose to commit violent crimes," he said.

The package also includes a measure that would expand the offenses that qualify for sentencing enhancement and one that would prevent felons with two or more weapon-related convictions from getting crimes expunged from their record.

Supporters believe enhanced sentences will send a message to Indiana communities and help deter crime. Critics argue that harsher sentencing isn't an effective deterrent and say it might cast too wide a net, requiring unreasonable prison sentences for lower-level crimes.

"We have been punishing harsher and more consistently than any other country on the planet," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. "If deterrence through punishment worked, we wouldn't have crime."

Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, is backing a bill that would give the state's three most populous counties — Marion, Lake and Allen County — $200,000 each for the next two years to increase police presence in high-crime areas. Another proposal would extend the statute of limitations in rape cases, giving prosecutors more time to file charges if there is a confession, a new suspect or new DNA.

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