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December 12, 2011

Same crime, different time

Counties vary widely in sending low-level offenders to prison

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.

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