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February 27, 2014

Judges may exercise more discretion come summer

Legislature leaveslow-level sentencing decisions to courts.

INDIANAPOLIS — Judges who’ve been clamoring for more control over prison sentences may be exercising some of that discretion this summer.

A long-in-the-making rewrite of Indiana’s felony criminal code removes some mandatory sentences added during decades of tough-on-crime policies, which led to higher prison costs.

The updates, passed last year, take effect July 1 and give judges more leeway by removing the binding, “non-suspendable” sentences for many low-level drug and property crimes.

“If somebody deserves to go to prison for 80 years for the crime they’ve committed, we’ll still be sending them there,” said Superior Court Judge Robert Freese, of Hendricks County. “But sending people to prison when it’s not appropriate isn’t justice.”

Like many of his colleagues, Freese says minimum sentences handcuff judges from doling out appropriate punishment — such as assignments to community-based treatment programs.

Someone charged with theft for stealing a Slurpee from a convenience store, for example, would face a mandatory sentence to state prison of no less than 180 days if he has a felony on his record within the past three years.

“Is sending someone to jail for stealing a $1.49 Slurpee the right punishment and the right use of our limited criminal justice resources?” Freese said.

The example may seem extreme, but a 2010 study commissioned by judges, legislators and former Gov. Mitch Daniels found the state’s prison population had grown by more than 40 percent in a decade. Annual prison costs were projected to reach $1 billion a year by 2017.

The average sentence for non-violent crimes was 96 months, according to the study, while the average sentence for sexual assault was only 65 months.

The study’s authors blamed the discrepancy in part on mandatory minimum sentences that elevate penalties for drug offenders and repeat low-level offenders. They suggested returning some discretion to local judges as a partial remedy.

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