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Alone With J

May 9, 2013

By J SWYGART
    Much-needed reforms to Indiana’s criminal code were among the slew of bills approved during this year’s session of the state General Assembly, but in the long view the tinkering finally approved by lawmakers fell well short of meaningful and cost-effective legislation and could even prove to have a detrimental effect on local and state coffers — and the lives of many Hoosiers.
    State Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, during one of the town hall meetings he held in Adams County throughout the legislative session, addressed the proposed sentencing modifications and the reclassification of some levels of crimes initially contained in the bill by saying, “We need to lock up those people we’re afraid of, not those we’re mad at.”
    Lehman’s remarks were targeted primarily at initial language in the bill that would have reduced penalties for the possession of minimal amounts of marijuana, and it was refreshing to hear a legislator from the conservative heartland admit — without actually saying as much — that lengthy prison terms for recreational pot use are counter-productive and a waste of valuable state and local resources.
   But it mattered little; Indiana Gov. Mike Pence effectively nixed that provision of the bill. Pence told reporters last month 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 a press conference. And the governor’s fellow Republicans at the Statehouse crumbled like ... well, kind of like the ancient and overcrowded Adams County jail is doing before our very eyes.
    Current Indiana law states that dealing in up to 10 pounds of marijuana is a Level D felony, punishable by up to three years. Wording in the original sentencing reform bill, which Pence objected to, would have reduced that penalty from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year. But after Pence objected, the bill was changed to make dealing in up to 10 pounds of marijuana a Level 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 1/2 years.
    The Indiana Public Defender Council said the bill’s tough drug penalties are too harsh.
    State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, earlier in the session had introduced a bill that would decriminalize marijuana in the state of Indiana. Her proposed legislation would have lessened the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The bill would have made possession of less than two ounces of marijuana a Class C infraction, decriminalizing the possession. Tallian’s bill seemed to make a modicum of sense — which apparently is why it never got off the ground.
    Indiana’s Red State badge remains proudly intact. God and guns, no pot and marriage only between men and women.
    In its final version, the main thrust of HB 1006 — the sentencing reform law — is to divert thousands of low-level offenders out of state prisons and back into local jails, probation departments, and community treatment programs. It also removes the current four level felony penalty classification and replaces those classifications with a six level felony tier and assigns new felony penalties to each crime.
    A budget deal reached April 25 contains $6.4 million to help local communities absorb extra costs of the new sentencing laws that would go into effect July 1, 2014. But that falls far short of $30 million recently requested by the bill’s supporters. Republican Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, who authored the bill, said the issue of funding will need to be taken up by a legislative study committee this summer.
    The bill urges the legislative council to: (1) require an existing study committee to evaluate the criminal law statutes ... and to make recommendations to the general assembly for the modification of the criminal law statutes in those titles; (2) study recidivism in Indiana; (3) study criminal justice funding issues; (4) study advisory sentences; and (5) study the suspendibility of sentences.
    But Andrew Berger, head of government relations for the Association of Indiana Counties, told the Pharos-Tribune of Logansport that the lack of funding has alarmed local officials who had come to see the bill as little more than cost-shifting by the state to local governments.
    “All along, the bill’s supporters said that if the locals aren’t given the resources, this isn’t going to work,” Berger told the Logansport newspaper. “Well, then I guess it’s not going to work.”

    The bill also adjusts Indiana’s credit time system, requiring offenders to serve at least 75 percent of their sentence, instead of 50 percent as under current law. Lehman earlier this year insisted, strenuously, that the new sentencing guidelines will save Hoosier tax dollars, even while making most prisoners serve more time behind bars — not less. The math was a little confusing at the time; it’s even more so with the bill’s final version.
    The state Department of Correction,  recently projected that the bill will increase the state’s prison population far beyond what the legislature’s non-partisan research agency says it will. The DOC’s projections say the state’s prison population could grow by 70 percent in 20 years.
    And that’s on top of an additional financial burden to individual counties left to deal with lower-level offenders.
    The cost savings at this point are difficult to see.
    Mike Pence got it wrong, again, by allowing antiquated Bible Belt thinking to get in the way of what could have been sensible and needed legislation.
    Remember that when the bill comes in the mail. And it’s coming — sooner rather than later.

    The writer is the editorial page editor of the Decatur Daily Democcrat.

    

 

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