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April 19, 2013

Disagreements stall criminal code reform bill

INDIANAPOLIS — Negotiations over the final language in a bill that rewrites Indiana’s criminal code may come down to the last week of the legislative session.

The House authors of the bill aren’t happy with the changes made by the Senate that toughen penalties for some crimes and give judges less latitude in sentencing.

Those disagreements have pushed the bill into a House-Senate conference committee, where legislators from both chambers have to hammer out their differences before the session ends April 29.

Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, who carried the bill in the House, is concerned the Senate changes may undermine one of the bill’s major goals: less incarceration and more rehabilitation at the local level of low-level offenders that are crowding the state prisons.

But Republican state Sen. Randy Head, a former deputy prosecutor from Logansport who pushed for the Senate changes, said the bill’s purpose “should be to sentence smarter, not necessarily to sentence lesser.”

“If someone needs to go to prison, they need to go,” Head said.

Steuerwald and Head disagree on a provision in the original bill that would have given judges more discretion to make that decision. That measure did away with some of the mandatory prison sentences now in the criminal code and gave judges more latitude to suspend a prison sentence and opt for alternative community-based treatment and correction programs.

In the House version of the bill, the only crimes ineligible for suspended sentences were the worst crimes, such as murder. The Senate changed that provision to restrict judges from suspending sentences of those convicted of all but the lowest level of felonies if the offender has a previous conviction.

Still, there are big areas of agreement on the legislation, including tougher penalties for violent and sex crimes and lower penalties for drug and theft crimes.

The biggest unresolved issue is money: The $30 billion budget bill that’s still being hammered contains no additional funding for the local jails, community corrections and probation departments that will have to absorb the biggest impact of the criminal code reform bill.

And there’s no additional funding for the substance abuse and mental health treatment programs that the bill’s supporters want used to help reduce the recidivism rates of low-level offenders whose crimes are tied to drug abuse and mental illness.

Steuerwald and Head agree on that. Both have been pushing for more dollars to go back to the local communities where more low-level offenders will be doing their time.

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

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