Indiana looks at criminal sentencing reform - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Indiana looks at criminal sentencing reform

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Months after a push for sweeping changes to Indiana's criminal sentencing system stalled in the Legislature, lawmakers on two study committees are preparing to take an in-depth look at the contentious issue over the summer.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has named sentencing reform as one of his top priorities for his final year in office. But with county prosecutors still balking at the proposals intended to lessen the strain on the state's prison, this summer's debate is likely to be heated.

Study committees chaired by State Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville and fellow Republican Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford will be reviewing how Indiana sentences prisoners.

They will also be proposing legislation intended to have a better chance of passing than the comprehensive sentencing overhaul Daniels and others championed unsuccessfully last session.

Bray, who chairs the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, told the Evansville Courier & Press that he and Steele intend to split the issues apart and put them in separate bills to boost their chances of passing.

"Last time we put it all in one boat and it sank," he said. Bray said his panel intends to tackle theft and drug sentences, while Steele's committee -- the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee -- will review sex-related sentences and could work on drugs, too.

Next week, Bray's panel will hear from proponents of sentencing law changes who want "graduated" sentences that offer greater distinction between major and minor crimes. "We should distinguish between shoplifting a pack of chewing gum and stealing a Mercedes," Bray said.

He said a more difficult topic up for discussion will be sentencing in sex-related crimes.  "We're trying to make sure that the people who get the most severe punishments are truly the pedophiles or people preying on others," Bray said.

But perhaps the most controversial aspect of sentencing reform is related to drug crimes.  Daniels, Bray and others have argued that community-based options might better suit those convicted of what are considered low-level drug crimes than incarceration does.

"If you could just get the kingpins, the drug cartel leaders and all of that, I would think life without parole would be a minimum," Bray said.

Daniels has argued that it's urgent to find a way to convince a majority of legislators that these arguments have merit.  The state Department of Correction's prisons are at near capacity, which means without changes to the law, the only options that exist are building new prisons or releasing inmates earlier.

Another hurdle will be convincing county prosecutors and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys' Council, which lobbies for prosecutors, that such changes won't amount to a "soft on crime" approach that undermines local efforts.

Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nicholas Hermann has resisted the proposed sentencing overhaul. He's particularly concerned by the notion of dropping sentences for drug crimes, especially those involving methamphetamine.

He said meth crimes can be destructive in ways far beyond those associated with most drug use.  "I've been in these homes and seen the kids' toys, the baby cradles. It's moved beyond a drug and a drug addiction to, you have someone basically making a bomb in a residential neighborhood," Hermann said.

Another problem with sentencing reform, he said, is that the changes envision greater roles for community-based programs. State lawmakers have capped Indiana's property taxes, and in the 2008 legislation that capped those taxes, lawmakers shifted costs for child welfare and juvenile detention programs to the state level. That left few options for raising additional revenue to beef those programs up.

Bray acknowledged that problem and said it's tough to find extra money to shift to the county level.  "This is a bad time to talk about increasing the budget," he said.

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