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December 11, 2011

State legislators layer the criminal code with felony crimes

INDIANAPOLIS — Back in 1997, the Indiana Legislature went on a kind of crime-killing spree, with lawmakers filing 30 bills to create new crimes and another 13 bills to lengthen prison sentences.

Only a handful passed that year, including bills that made it a Class D felony to harm a law enforcement animal, injure a prison employee, impersonate a police officer, or provide false information for a marriage license.

Over the past 20 years, the Indiana General Assembly has amended the state criminal code 107 times to add new crimes or lengthen the prison sentences of existing crimes. 

The biggest category of felony crimes now in Indiana are Class D felonies, the lowest-level crimes that carry the least amount of prison time.

There are more than 150 criminal acts that can be charged as a Class D felony, ranging widely from abuse of a corpse to use of a stun gun. In between are some of the most commonly committed non-violent crimes, including theft and possession of illegal drugs. 

A Class D felony can earn a convicted offender a prison term of six months to three years, but a judge has some discretion, including adding a fine of up to $10,000. The Indiana criminal code advises judges to consider setting the sentence at a year and a half behind bars, but for some crimes, the judge can knock the crime down to a misdemeanor and waive prison time. 

But the Indiana crime code, as crafted by the Indiana General Assembly, also takes away judicial discretion in some cases. For example, there’s a state statute that mandates prison time for any Class D offender who’s committed a prior felony within three years of committing the new crime. And Class D felons convicted of domestic battery or possessing child pornography automatically get prison time. 

Class D felons are the biggest customers of Indiana Department of Correction. They make up about half the new admissions each year, and until the last couple of years when the numbers started to flatten out, they were on a rapid rise. According to the DOC, the number of Class D felons in the state prison system increased 28 percent between 2005 and 2009. 

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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