Indiana lawmakers eye returning to more prison sentences

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A big jump in Indiana county jail overcrowding has state lawmakers looking to partially roll back a nearly decade-old criminal sentencing overhaul and let judges send more people convicted of low-level felonies into state prisons.

An Indiana House committee voted this past week in favor of a proposal dropping the state’s requirement that most people sentenced for least-serious Level 6 felony crimes serve any time behind bars in county jails.

That requirement took effect in 2014 as lawmakers aimed to have those convicted of lower-level property or drug crimes spend time in intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs, with the expectation that would help prevent them from becoming career criminals.

The change, however, resulted in nearly 16,000 people with Level 6 convictions being sent to county jails during 2021. An Indianapolis Star investigation found most of the state’s 92 jails were overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the influx of people with addiction and other mental health issues as the statewide jail population has exploded by 60% since 2010.

State Rep. Randy Frye, a Greensburg Republican sponsoring the bill, said the state Department of Correction has more drug addiction and mental health treatment available.

“Many of our rural jails just don’t have adequate treatment facilities for these folks. This is just an option,” Frye said.

Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, called the proposed roll back “disheartening.”

“Indiana has a very large jail overcrowding problem. We all know that,” Corley said. “I know counties are hurting. I know facilities are hurting. But this feels a bit premature.”

The criminal sentencing changes reduced the number of inmates being sent to the state prison system by nearly 6,000, or about 40% a year, according to a legislative report.

Allowing prison sentencing for Level 6 offenses will increase the DOC’s population by “an indeterminable amount” because of uncertainty over the decisions of judges, the report said.

Rep. Matt Pierce, a Bloomington Democrat who was a co-sponsor of the original sentencing overhaul bill in 2013, said he supported the new legislation but called it “a recognition of failure, and really almost a surrender” on the part of the General Assembly.

“The idea was not to turn a jail into a mental health facility, but to have programs outside the jail in the local community, where offenders could go to solve the underlying problems that are causing them to get ensnared in the criminal justice system,” Pierce said. “And the idea was, we would find savings from DOC and reallocate those down to the local level. And it just hasn’t happened.”

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