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February 22, 2013

Criminal code rewrite goes forward without local funding

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana House is moving forward on legislation that rewrites the state criminal code to make punishment better fit the crime, but a key ingredient is still missing: Money to implement it on the local level.

House Bill 1006 is designed to reserve state prisons for the worst offenders while sending more low-level offenders into county jails, community-based corrections and probation rolls.

The goal is to get those low-level offenders – many of whom are drug abusers – into programs that offer treatment and intensive supervision that reduce the odds they’ll commit another crime.

“We’re adding a ‘smart on crime’ element to our already ‘tough on crime’ elements we have in the code,” said state Rep. Matt Pierce, a Bloomington Democrat and bill co-sponsor.

But the bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday, on 20-0 vote, doesn’t include a funding mechanism for much of the extra costs that local communities would have to absorb.

A proposed $1.9 million “probation improvement fund” in the original bill has been removed from the legislation. There’s no money in the bill to expand the kind of community-based substance treatment programs that the bill’s supporters say is critical. And no extra dollars to help counties that have no community corrections program – an alternative to jail – create or staff one.

The bill is scheduled for its first vote in the full House this week where it could be amended. If it passes, it would likely go up for a final vote on Monday.

The legislation would bring sweeping changes to Indiana’s criminal code. Among other things, it reduces Indiana’s tough drug penalties. No longer would someone caught with cocaine near a school face a tougher sentence than a rapist. And no longer would someone caught with marijuana automatically lose their driver’s license or face a felony charge if found with more than one ounce of pot.  

It would also divert thousands of low-level offenders, most charged with drug and theft crimes, out of the state prisons and back into local communities for treatment, supervision or incarceration.

Both the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indiana Public Defender Council were involved in crafting the bill and both support its goal of making penalties more proportional to the crime.

But both say that more funding for local treatment programs designed to reduce recidivism is critical.

Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Public Defender Council, said the bill could be amended to contain language requiring the state Department of Correction to reinvest any savings it sees from having few prisoners back into local community corrections programs.

The current bill contains no such language, so any dollars saved by the DOC could go back to the state’s general fund to be used for other purposes.

Dave Powell, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said the legislation would have “a huge, huge impact” on local communities.

“No one questions that,” Powell said. “It will place more offenders at the local level and will impact local costs in a big way.”

In a two-year budget plan proposed by House Republicans, there is $5.2 million set aside for the state to pay for the salaries of two probation officers in every county, which could free up some dollars that counties currently pay for probation services.

But the House GOP budget plan faces opposition from Republican Gov. Mike Pence because it doesn’t include his proposed 10 percent income tax rate cut, which would cost the state more than $500 million in lost revenue each year.

The rewrite of the criminal code contained in House Bill 1006 was spurred by a failed attempt at sentencing reform in 2010. That earlier effort came after a study showed that Indiana’s prison count had grown by 41 percent between 2000 and 2009 — an increase three times that of neighboring states.

The study also found that the increase had been caused not by violent criminals but by drug addicts and by low-level, nonviolent criminals.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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