— Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-day series examining the issue of minor felony convictions related to Indiana prison overcrowding, offender recidivism and sentencing fairness, along with legislative reform intended to ease the problems.
INDIANAPOLIS — At first glance, the rural Indiana counties of Huntington and Martin look like they’d have much in common.
Both are populated with small towns that pride themselves on safe streets and some of lowest crime rates in the state.
But, for law-breakers, the difference between the two counties is stark.
According to numbers released by the Indiana Department of Correction this summer, the odds of getting prison time for committing the most common crimes are higher in Huntington County than anywhere else in the state. The odds in Martin County — near zero.
The same numbers — taken from a 12-month count of DOC inmates convicted of the lowest-level felony offenses — shows a similar disparity in Indiana urban counties with high crimes rates.
From August 2010 to July 2011, Marion County, home to nearly a million people, sent 100 times more class D felons into the DOC than Lake County, which is half its size.
Indiana law gives counties sentencing options for class D felons ranging from probation to prison time. But the DOC numbers show a patchwork quilt of incarceration across the state, suggesting a wide variation in how different counties treat the same offenses.
It’s a geographic disparity with impact. If you’re caught committing one of more than 150 offenses categorized as a class D felony, where you did the crime may determine if you do any time.
As the Indiana General Assembly readies itself for the 2012 session that begins in January, lawmakers pushing for sentencing reform are using that geographic disparity to make their case.
To cut state prison costs, they want more county officials to see the DOC as Martin County Prosecutor Mike Steiner does: a last resort for low-level offenders.
“My personal belief,” said Steiner, “is that going to the Department of Correction is like going to grad school for crime.”
There are plenty of prosecutors and judges who disagree, including Huntington County Superior Court Judge Jeff Heffelfinger.
“We send people to prison because they belong there,” he said. “It’s what our communities expect us to do.”
The numbers issue is driven by more than just philosophical differences over crime and punishment.
It’s also about money.
The sentencing trends for Class D offenders are being studied by a group of state-funded researchers, commissioned to find out why Indiana prisons saw a 41 percent jump in their numbers between 2000 to 2009.
What they find may help guide some of the sentencing reform measures crafted by the Legislature, but Gov. Mitch Daniels, entering his final year in office, has made it clear he wants another shot at reining in the state’s prison costs, which rose by $120 million over the last decade.
When he pushed for sentencing reform in the 2011 session, Daniels argued there were too many low-risk, low-level offenders taking up expensive bed space needed for the state’s more dangerous criminals.
Keep up the numbers, he warned, and the state would be forced to spend scarce dollars building more prisons.
He still espouses the money argument, but also takes the Steiner point of view: Prisons are where petty offenders go for an apprenticeship in crime.
Daniels leans on the findings a 2010 Pew Center on the States report of Indiana’s prison problems. The authors said the quickest way to counter the state’s prison population was to send the lowest-level offenders back to their home counties and into community-based programs proven to be effective in reducing offender return rates.
“It’s first about reducing recidivism and then about saving state dollars,” the governor said at a recent news conference. “It’s in that order.”
Yet, a bill he’s likely to back in the 2012 session has a direct impact on dollars to the counties.
Carved out of last year’s sentencing reform legislation, it would create an incentive program that would funnel more state dollars to counties that send fewer class D felons to the DOC. And it would cut state funding to counties that send more.
Skeptics include Larry Landis, head of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, who worries about its unintended consequences.
“It may just mean more people will be charged with a higher-level felony,” Landis said. “It doesn’t solve the problem of there being too many people in prison.”
• Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.