When Steve Johnson, longtime advocate for Indiana’s county prosecutors, died unexpectedly last week at the age of 66, I tweeted the Statehouse had lost “a quiet voice in a place of bombast.”
Lisa Swaim, Cass County’s chief deputy prosecutor, described it differently. For prosecutors, she said, losing Johnson was like losing Superman.
Both are true. For the nearly 15 years Johnson led the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council — and the 25 years he spent as its research director — he exhibited both the mild manner and man-of-steel qualities admired by so many.
“He was the most knowledgeable man I ever met about Indiana criminal law,” said lawyer and state Senate President David Long. “And his word was his bond.”
Being one of the smartest guys in the Statehouse is impressive. Being one of the most trusted, even more so.
On criminal law Johnson was a go-to expert for legislators from both parties.
As his successor, David Powell, told me, “He didn’t embellish.”
That was Johnson’s value. He was an effective advocate for prosecutors and victims of crime, but he didn’t make his case with hyperbole.
Three years ago, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels named Johnson a Distinguished Hoosier, a high honor given at the discretion of the governor to citizens who bring admiration and respect to the state through their character and accomplishments.
There was some irony in the award. That same year, it was Johnson who helped stop the legislative locomotive that Daniels was driving to slash prison costs and ease the state’s budget woes. Quietly but persistently questioning the bill’s premise, Johnson argued there had to be a better way to reduce the prison population without endangering public safety.
His work continued even after retirement. Still consulting for the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, Johnson was laboring over a legislative rewrite of Indiana’s antiquated criminal code when he died at home in Hendricks County.