Pharos-Tribune

November 25, 2013

Legislators eye tweaks to sentencing overhaul law


Pharos-Tribune

---- — SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Indiana lawmakers could go back to the drawing board before sweeping changes to state sentencing guidelines take effect in July.

Two studies examining a massive criminal code overhaul that lawmakers passed last year could point out areas needing adjustments, and some say that suggests the overhaul shouldn't take effect until 2015.

The sentencing overhaul was designed to reduce the need to build new prison space or release offenders early by placing low-level offenders in probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs. But many counties have expressed concern about the costs of handling an influx of inmates.

State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, who authored the original bill, said he wants to see what the studies say about costs of the changes and possible funding options before tinkering with the new sentencing guidelines. The studies, which are due to a legislative committee by Dec. 10, will examine bed space in state prisons and county jails, along with cost issues.

"The most critical part of the entire bill is the funding for the locals," Steuerwald told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1fdRQNT ). "If we do not fund that properly, there was no sense in doing that bill."

The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council has voiced concerns about the legislation, arguing that the sentencing range for drug dealers is too low. The council also objects to a provision allowing judges to suspend an entire sentence for what prosecutors say are violent crimes.

But public defenders and other interest groups have mostly lauded the new sentence ranges and argued that being able to suspend sentences puts the judge back in control of sentencings.

The changes approved last year are the first revisions to the state's criminal code since the 1970s. Many lawmakers say the update is needed to create sentencing ranges that are proportionate with the crime.

The new guidelines establish felony ranges numbered from Class 1 to Class 6 instead of the current A through D system.

The new guidelines decrease minimum sentences for many crimes but require that people serve about 75 percent of a sentence. Current law allows offenders to serve 50 percent of their time. Lawmakers also hope to adjust the legislation to ensure that offenders such as child molesters don't serve significantly less time than low-level drug dealers.

"The idea was to make the punishment meet the crime," said state Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis.

Many prosecutors say penalties for dealing certain quantities of hard drugs are too low. Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said lawmakers should increase opportunities to use education to reduce sentences to address issues of recidivism and prison crowding.