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January 16, 2013

Criminal code re-write would restore ‘fairness and proportionality’

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana may join a growing number of states that are reducing penalties for low-level drug crimes while increasing the punishment for violent criminals and sexual predators.

Under legislation filed Monday that rewrites much of the state’s criminal code, someone caught near a school with three grams of cocaine would no longer face a harsher penalty than a rapist, for example.

“It’s about restoring some fairness and proportionality to our system of criminal justice,” said Republican state Sen. Brent Steele, a key supporter of the bill and chair of the Senate courts and corrections committee.

The legislation calls for significantly reduced penalties for marijuana possession – though not decriminalization of pot as Steele has advocated for in the past.

Among the other changes: It increases the number of felony levels from the current four to six and spells out new rules for how prisoners could earn “credit time” for early release. It also gives judges more discretion over when to suspend prison sentences for some low-level crimes, but would add more violent crimes to the list of offenses with mandatory prison time.

The bill, more than 400 pages in length, is modeled on recommendations from a legislature-appointed commission that called for overhauling the state’s criminal laws to make punishment more proportionate to the crime. Other states, including neighboring Kentucky, have followed a similar path.

Steele said the legislature’s history of being “tough on crime” has resulted in unfair and inconsistent laws and a criminal code that no longer contains like sentences for like crimes.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tightened the screws down in my 16 years of being here,” said the veteran lawmaker. “But I also understand what we’ve got right now isn’t fair.”

Steele, a lawyer from Bedford, is the lead author of the Senate version of the bill. It’s identical to the bill being carried by Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a lawyer from Avon who chairs the House judiciary committee.

Both are seen as conservative legislators, as is one of the bill’s champions, Republican Rep. Jud McMillin, a former deputy prosecutor from Brookville.

One of their central arguments for the bill is that Indiana’s prisons house too many low-level, non-violent offenders who could be better served in community-based correction programs that cost much less to operate. The bill’s fiscal impact statement estimates about 1,100 offenders a year would end up in local corrections programs rather than state prison.

“People who want to advocate being tough on crime need to be tempered by the fact that being tough on crime is tough on taxpayers,” McMillin said.

Steele said there are elements of the bill that some legislators won’t like because of fear they’ll be accused of being “soft on crime” when they face re-election.

The bill, for example, reduces the size of the “drug-free zones” around schools that give prosecutors the ability to bring tougher charges with longer prison terms. It would reduce the zone from 1,000 feet from a school to 500 feet.

While it restricts the amount of “credit time” that some offenders could earn by getting a college degree, it would make it easier for some low-level, non-violent offenders to get out early if they got training in a vocational trade while in prison.

Under current Indiana law, marijuana possession is a felony unless it’s a first time offense or the amount is less than one ounce. Under the proposed bill, possession of marijuana is reduced to a misdemeanor.

“There are some things in it that could be politicized,” said Steele. “But that’s why some of the things we need to do in the legislature don’t get ever done, because we’re afraid of what it’s going to look like.”

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

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