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April 29, 2013

Reform bill stripped of funding

Lawmaker says criminal code bill not intended to be an unfunded mandate.

INDIANAPOLIS — Facing the end-of-session deadline, Indiana legislators moved forward on a bill to overhaul the state’s criminal sentencing laws but left undone the issue of where local communities will get the money to implement it.  

The House voted Thursday to approve a compromise version of the bill, designed to divert thousands of low-level offenders out of state prisons and back into local jails, probation departments, and community treatment programs.

A budget deal also reached Thursday contains $6.4 million to help local communities absorb extra costs of the new sentencing laws that would go into effect July 1, 2014. But that falls far short of $30 million recently requested by the bill’s supporters.

“We do not intend for this to be an unfunded mandate to the locals,” said Republican Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, who authored House Bill 1006.

Steuerwald said the issue of funding will need to be taken up by a legislative study committee this summer.

As House Bill 1006 made its way though the session, it was stripped of funding. Not until this week, after county officials from around the state flooded their legislators with calls and emails, was money for local programs put in the budget bill.

Andrew Berger, head of government relations for the Association of Indiana Counties, said the lack of funding alarmed local officials who’d come to see the bill as little more than cost-shifting by the state to local governments.

“All along, the bill’s supporters said that if the locals aren’t given the resources, this isn’t going to work,” Berger said. “Well, then I guess it’s not going to work.”

House Bill 1006 rewrites the state’s felony criminal code to raise penalties for the violent and sex crimes and decrease penalties for low-level property and drug crimes.

The goal was to keep the worst criminals in prison and give judges the discretion to send low-level offenders into intensive local probation, work-release, or addiction-treatment programs to keep them from cycling back into crime.

But Berger said local communities can’t afford to pick up the all the extra costs. Few county jails have drug-treatment programs, the probation rolls in counties are already crowded, and there are counties in Indiana that have no community-corrections programs, he said.

“Without the money to make this work, what’s the point of the bill?” Berger said.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Portage who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, had attempted to get $30 million in additional funding for local governments impacted by the bill: $10 million to expand community corrections, $10 million for local drug and alcohol treatment programs, and $10 million for county probation departments to hire and train more probation officers.

“I pushed that really hard,” Tallian said.

The bill’s authors remain hopeful that the funding issue can be resolved before the law goes into effect in 2014. But they face a challenge of trying get more money from the Legislature during a non-budget year.

State Rep. Tim Brown, the chief Republican budget-maker in the House, said there’s been conflicting opinions about the fiscal impact of House Bill 1006.

While the Legislative Services Agency has said the legislation will eventually lower the prison population and save the state money, the state Department of Correction came out with its own analysis that said the prison population will skyrocket, because of the bill’s longer prison sentences for the worst offenders.

Still, the bill’s backers remain hopeful that the legislation can be improved upon in the next legislative session.

Democrat Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington, a co-author of the bill, called House Bill 1006 “the scaffolding on which we’ll build a better criminal justice system.”

“We’ve got a lot more work to do,” Pierce said.

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

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