By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Indiana’s criminal code may be in for some sweeping changes, including more levels of felonies, tougher penalties for the worst sex and violent crimes, and less prison time for low-level drug crimes.
A 375-page report, crafted at the direction of the Legislature, calls for overhauling the state’s criminal laws to make punishment more proportionate to the crime.
The report, submitted in late July to the state’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, is likely to be the framework for major legislation in the next session and the impetus for reviving the sentencing reform effort that died last year.
Among the changes recommended that reflect concerns about the disproportionate penalties in the current code: Possessing three grams of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school yard would no longer carry a harsher penalty than rape.
The report is the work product of a group of prosecutors, public defenders and other attorneys who were assigned by the commission to take a comprehensive look at the state’s criminal code. The working group was lead by Deborah Daniels, a former U.S. Attorney and the sister of Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Indiana’s criminal code hasn’t been revised since 1977 and since then, the Indiana General Assembly has added a lot more crimes with much stiffer sentences, but did so in a piecemeal fashion.
Criminal Code Evaluation Commission chairman Ralph Foley said legislators who took a “tough on crime” approach in the past did so without considering the escalating costs of locking up more offenders or making sure there were like penalties for like crimes.
“The Indiana constitution requires proportionality,” Foley said.
The recommendations in the report are sweeping, but only cover felony crimes. It doesn’t address the state’s traffic laws nor does it proscribe specific penalty ranges.
But it does strongly recommend that Indiana broaden the levels of felonies, moving from its current four levels to six levels. That change would allow prosecutors and judges to better sort out the seriousness of crimes and the penalties they carry. A person convicted of causing “serious bodily injury” to a victim during a burglary could be charged at a higher level — and face more prison time — than a person convicted of causing less serious injury to a victim during a burglary.
Another major change: a felony theft charge would be based on the value of the object stolen. Currently, a prosecutor can charge a felony theft no matter the stolen item’s value. The report recommends Indiana follow other states by creating a theft “threshold”: a stolen item would have to be worth $750 before a prosecutor could bring a class D felony charge.
The report recommends increasing the penalties for the worst sex offenders, and for offenders who are violent, who use weapons, or repeatedly commit the same kind of crime. The report also recommends the elimination of an “early release” program that allowed a convicted sex offender to reduce an eight-year sentence to less than two years by earning a college degree while in prison.
Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defenders Council and a member of the working group that wrote the report, said there are some recommendations where prosecutors and public offenders didn’t agree. “But the members of the committee agreed on the vast majority of recommendations made on the crimes we evaluated,” Cullen said.
State Sen. Randy Head, a Republican from Logansport and former prosecutor who sits on the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, said the report is still a “working document” that needs to be reviewed and approved by commission members. But Head, who’d opposed the 2011 sentencing reform effort in part because it failed to address violent crimes, said the wide-ranging scope of this latest report is a good sign.
“We may not agree with all the recommendations,” Head said. “But the report gives us a more comprehensive look at the problem.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.