Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

March 18, 2014

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Curbing the 'tough on crime' mentality

Legislators soften drug-crime penalites

Republican Sen. Brent Steele is the rock-ribbed, law-and-order chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he’s no ordinary conservative.

Two years ago, the small-town lawyer startled Statehouse colleagues when he suggested decriminalizing marijuana. He likened Indiana’s tough pot penalties to “smashing an ant with a sledgehammer.”

He failed to convince fellow lawmakers. But, as a key player in the massive rewrite of Indiana’s criminal code, he has managed to soften the crime.

As of July 1, most marijuana possession charges will morph from felonies into misdemeanors.

Now Steele has another idea that may upset the tough-on-crime caucus: He wants to significantly slow the process of creating new crimes and penalties that send more people to prison.

The idea, strongly backed by his counterpart, House Judiciary Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, would force lawmakers to justify any measure to crack down on crime that would alter the new criminal code.

Their proposal would give a little known body, the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, new power to vet proposed legislation.

The study committee would operate somewhat like the fiscal gatekeepers — House Ways and Means and Senate Appropriations — by forcing scrutiny of a bill’s long-term impact. Without those committees’ blessing, any money-spending measure is doomed.

Steele and Steuerwald can’t mandate the committee will have veto power. But, with a change in legislative rules, it could have much more clout.

The committee’s makeup already lends it authority. It’s a bipartisan group of more than just legislators. Judges, prosecutors and public defenders are represented, too.

It meets in the summer, long before the legislative session starts. That would force a lawmaker to bring a proposal to the committee months before he or she could file a bill. That legislator would have to justify not only why a new crime or penalty should be created, but also calculate how much it would cost to incarcerate offenders.

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