The criminal code reform passed last year repealed many of mandatory minimum sentences.
As legislators revised the bill this year, adding new sentencing guidelines, they kept mandatory sentences for high-level crimes such as murder, rape and drug dealing. But they left intact language that eliminated mandatory terms for lower-level crimes including theft and drug offenses.
John M. Marnocha, a St. Joseph County judge who spent three years on the commission that helped rewrite the criminal code, said increasing judges’ discretion can reduce recidivism and bring down the prison population.
Judges may dole out alternative sentences to low-risk defendants who’d benefit, for example, from drug or alcohol treatment, he said. They could also start using options such as house arrest or work release.
But, Marnocha cautions, multiple factors are at play. Prosecutors and judges may risk being seen as “soft on crime” if they opt for prison alternatives. All of Indiana’s county prosecutors and most state judges are elected.
“It’s almost too early to tell what’s ultimately going to happen,” Marnocha said. “It’s still a work a progress.”
Larry Landis, head of the Indiana Public Defender Council, worries the increased judicial discretion will be offset by other changes made to the criminal code this year. Under pressure from prosecutors, legislators increased advisory sentences for some crimes, mandated minimum sentences for some habitual offenders and jacked up penalties for gun-related crimes.
“You can’t call this criminal code ‘reform’ anymore,” Landis said.
The impact all of the changes will have on the prison population remains in dispute. Last summer the state Department of Correction predicted an increase in the prison population while the Legislative Services Agency — the research arm of the General Assembly — forecast an eventual drop.
The biggest unresolved issue remains funding. The General Assembly has yet to allocate money for communities to expand local programs that judges would use as part of new sentences.