By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
A week after Gov. Mike Pence caught lawmakers by surprise with his opposition to a major criminal code reform bill, the state Department of Correction is projecting the bill will blow up the state’s prison population far beyond what the legislature’s non-partisan research agency says it will.
The DOC’s projections, which say the state’s prison population could grow by 70 percent in 20 years if the bill becomes law, caught supporters of the bill by surprise during a committee hearing on the legislation Tuesday.
Republican State Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford, a key sponsor of House Bill 1006, sharply questioned the validity of the DOC numbers both during the hearing and afterwards, when he likened the projections to “ninja smoke.”
House Bill 1006 rewrites the criminal code to lessen penalties for low-level drug offenders and toughen punishment for the worst sex and violent offenders. Backers of the bill have long argued that it would slow down the rise in Indiana’s prison population.
The DOC projections, released by DOC deputy commissioner Randy Koester during Tuesday’s hearing, conflict with a Legislative Services Agency analysis which says the bill would lead to a small increase in prison population before dropping off.
While the LSA analysis predicts the prison population would top off at about 30,000 (up from the current 28,000) within a few years if the bill is passed, the DOC projects the bill explode the prison population to almost 48,000 by 2023.
When Steele pushed Koester for the information used to make the projections, including the average length of sentence served by offenders by felony level, Koester said he didn’t have the information with him.
After the committee hearing, Steele said he questioned DOC’s ability to project the prison population that far into the future. He said anyone who believes they can make that kind of projection “believe(s) in ninja smoke.” (A reference, Steele explained, to the magical smoke used by ninja warriors to distract onlookers as the ninja disappears.)
Steele and the bill’s House author, Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, are committed to pushing ahead with the bill. It’s already passed the Republican-controlled House and has strong support from Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who’s been at odds with Pence over the governor’s proposed income tax rate cut.
But the bill is also likely to undergo changes as it moves through the Senate. Steele said the bill may be amended to raise the penalties for marijuana crimes, which had been reduced from felonies to misdemeanor charges in the current bill.
Last week, Pence surprised legislators when he announced his opposition to the bill during a press conference with TV and radio reporters. Steele had been told of the governor’s opposition earlier that day, but Steuerwald and the two Democrat authors of the bill had not.
Pence told reporters he was unhappy with the bill’s provisions that would decrease penalties for entry-level drug offenses. “I think we need to work on reducing crime, not reducing penalties,” Pence said during the press conference.
The bill’s backers argue that’s what the bill does, by diverting low-level offenders into local treatment and corrections programs aimed at reducing recidivism, while keeping the worst offenders behind bars.
“It’s not soft on crime, by any means,” Steuerwald said.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.