Some of the heaviest lifting that will go on in the Statehouse this summer will be done by two groups of legislators with the unenviable task of overhauling Indiana’s criminal code.
The premise of their work is this: that in the 34 years since Indiana’s laws were revised to make them simpler to understand and easier to wield to protect public safety, session after session of tough-on-crime legislators have loaded them up with burdensome penalties that are sending more Hoosiers to prison.
Two separate summer study committees of legislators are divvying up the task, with a somewhat more specific goal in mind. Their real aim is to figure out how to keep Indiana’s prison population from topping out and requiring the state to build a billion-dollar prison or two.
Some sweeping legislation that would have reduced or eliminated prison time for committers of low-level crime didn’t get very far in the last legislative session. Prosecutors got blamed. Their concentrated efforts to derail legislation that would have reduced penalties for some drug and property crimes was effective in its appeal to lawmakers who don’t want to be accused of being “soft on crime.”
But like most things in the Statehouse, it was more complicated than that. Prosecutors also feared they’d lose the leverage they need to make the plea deals that keep crowded court dockets from exploding into sheer chaos.
Unlike on TV, most people charged with a crime don’t get a jury trial. They have lawyers who negotiate plea agreements with prosecutors, often copping a guilty plea to a lesser crime than what they were charged with. It’s not perfect justice, but it does make the system move a little more swiftly.
State Sen. Richard Bray, the Republican chairman of the legislature’s Commission on the Courts, has some sympathy for the prosecutors’ plight as well as the political pushback that comes with tampering with anything crime-related.
Bray said in his former life as a county prosecutor, he would charge criminals with the crime of “auto banditry.” In 1921, the Indiana legislature created it as a new crime, carrying a maximum of 25 years in prison. It made it a crime to use an automobile, motorcycle, airplane or other “self-moving conveyance” to flee from the scene of a crime. Birthed in the era of gangsters and getaway cars, it was used to help put John Dillinger in prison.
Bray said he used the charge and its heavy sentence to put the squeeze on defendants. “I’d get them to plead guilty by intimidation,” Bray said.
He’s a realist about how tough the task will be to rewrite Indiana’s criminal code. Bray’s recollection of how it was revamped in 1977 involves two legislators who sat down in a back room and knocked out a new code in about three days time. He doubts if it will be that simple this time around.
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.