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February 15, 2011

Prosecutors win one round of the sentencing reform debate in Indiana

This interesting new story from Indiana, headlined "Daniels-backed prison reform is dealt a blow by prosecutors," spotlights how readily a legislature can morph a sentence-reducing reform proposal into a sentence-enhancing reform proposal. Here are the details:

A criminal justice reform bill that Gov. Mitch Daniels hoped would save more than $1 billion by reducing the number of people held in prison is headed to the Senate floor.  But the bill, approved 8-2 by a Senate committee Monday, has changed so much because of pressure from prosecutors that it's no longer clear whether it will save any money in the long term.

"We just don't accept the idea that because the Department of Correction has a bed problem that we should be releasing serious felons back on the street," said Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, a member of the Senate's Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters Committee.  Despite the setback, the governor's office pointed out that Senate Bill 561 could easily change again.  Both the full Senate and the House will have opportunities to amend it....

Many of the provisions of the original bill -- aimed at diverting low-level drug offenders to treatment and community corrections -- still remain in some form. But the bill's overhaul is a major victory for prosecutors, who persuaded lawmakers to add a provision ensuring serious violent felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.  Currently, most offenders have to serve only half their sentences because they earn a day of credit for each day of good behavior....

Prosecutors also headed off an effort in the original bill to reduce the "drug-free zones" -- the 1,000-foot areas around schools, apartment complexes, public parks and housing projects where drug transactions carry an enhanced sentence -- to 200 feet.   A study by DePauw University students found that 53 percent of the area inside I-465 is in a drug-free zone.  Sometimes, the students found, offenders facing the enhanced charges had been selling drugs in their own apartments with no children present.

Daniels and Chief Justice Randall Shepard had strongly endorsed the reforms, and in his State of the State speech this year, Daniels told lawmakers the package aimed for "smarter" incarceration and urged them to "seize this opportunity."  But those savings are called into question by the prosecutors' 85 percent provision, which will force the Department of Correction to house serious felons much longer than the think tanks had anticipated.  The researchers' analysis also anticipated that reducing the 1,000-foot drug-free zones would lead to fewer sentence enhancements.

The bill somewhat accomplishes one of its original key goals -- bringing some of Indiana's unusually harsh penalties for low-level offenses more into line with neighboring states. Theft of less than $750 would no longer be a felony; it would be a misdemeanor.  Prison time for selling and possessing cocaine and methamphetamine would be shorter.  "There's a lot of things in that bill that are good," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.

Lawmakers also added an effort to help low-level felons rejoin society, though prosecutors expect to target that provision for elimination.  A person convicted of a nonviolent felony crime could petition the court to make that conviction invisible to employers -- though not to police -- after waiting eight years from the end date of their sentence.

February 15, 2011 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"Sometimes, the students found, offenders facing the enhanced charges had been selling drugs in their own apartments with no children present."

So, the neighbors and their kids have to be subjected to the drug dealer next door as long as there are no kids inside the dealer's apartment? Get real.

Posted by: josh | Feb 15, 2011 7:48:44 PM

josh, what part of "enhanced sentence" do you not understand? No one is legalizing drug dealing outside of school zones; no one says anyone has to "be subjected to" drug dealing. If an "enhancement" applies in almost all circumstances, it lacks its intended goal of reflecting an increased culpability/harm. I think it's you who needs to get real.

Posted by: anon | Feb 15, 2011 11:47:48 PM

C'mon, anon. You just don't understand. We must do every damn-fool thing imaginable to "protect the children," preserve politicians' phony-baloney jobs, and bestow even more power on potentate prosecutors.

Posted by: John K | Feb 16, 2011 8:08:31 AM

"If an "enhancement" applies in almost all circumstances, it lacks its intended goal of reflecting an increased culpability/harm."

Actually, it doesn't apply in all circumstances. It may apply most (53%) in Indianapolis, but in 47% of Indianapolis, you are able to deal drugs without the enhanced penalty. Why don't the drug dealers educate themselves so they can avoid the enhanced penalties?

Posted by: josh | Feb 16, 2011 9:04:27 PM

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