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December 11, 2011

Push for prison downsizing focuses on low-level offenders

INDIANAPOLIS — After the Madison County judge looked at Bruce A. Wilson’s pre-sentence report, he made a decision, based in part, the judge said, on Wilson’s “lack of remorse.”

So Wilson, busted with two ounces of marijuana tied up in three bags, $3,900 in cash and no prior felony convictions, was sentenced to three years in the Indiana Department of Correction for something which would have earned him a citation and a fine in Ohio.

Unfair? Not according to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which upheld the sentence.

Thus, Wilson became a statistic, one of the growing numbers of low-level felons in Indiana’s prison system, which grew by 41 percent between 2000 and 2009, a period which saw an almost perfectly corresponding drop in violent crime. Individuals like Wilson, convicted and sentenced on a Class D felony charge — the least severe of Indiana’s four felony grades — are the reason for that increase.

Systemic change starts at Statehouse

As the Indiana General Assembly begins a short session in January, expect that one fact to be front and center. The Legislature — at the prompting of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — will be taking a hard look at the more than $600 million annually spent on prisons.

Legislators also will look at money the state spends funding community corrections programs in the counties, programs designed to keep offenders like Wilson out of prison, considered by some to be a sort of academy for advancement in crime.

Statistics provided by researchers, who are analyzing sentencing trends for low level offenders, will be used in legislators’ assessments. One of the most glaring disparities already revealed has been the wide variation in how different counties treat the same offenses. The number of Class D felons going to prison is 20 times greater, on a per capita basis, from Huntington County than from Lake County.

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