Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

March 18, 2014

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Curbing the 'tough on crime' mentality

Legislators soften drug-crime penalites

(Continued)

Steele and Steuerwald have spent years working to rewrite the criminal code, stripping it of bloated language, archaic laws and out-of-whack penalties that made child molesters face less prison time than someone caught with a few grams of cocaine near a park.

They know a politician’s instincts. At a press conference last week on legislation that finalizes the rewrite of the criminal code, supporters hailed the bill as “tough on crime.”

It is — on violent crime. But it also pushes down penalties for myriad drug and property crimes. No one was hailing that.

“You’re not going to get politicians to stand up and say, ‘We softened it,’ but we did on the non-violent crimes,” Steele said. “We decided we’re not going to hammer some of these people with a sledgehammer when they need to be hit with a tack hammer instead.”

Like Steele, Steuerwald worries about the tendency to go for the sledgehammer. Tougher criminal penalties, he said, are “extremely difficult to vote against, because everybody thinks they’ll appear to be soft on crime.”

There is precedent for their proposal.

In 1978, after the criminal code went through a similar overhaul, a body was created to vet proposed changes in the law. The Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission operated until 2002, when it released a controversial report recommending Indiana curtail its use of the death penalty. It was disbanded soon after.

In the decade since, Indiana’s prison population grew more than 40 percent to 29,000 — expanding three times faster than those of neighboring states.

“We can do this,” Steele said of his proposal. “It just takes some guts.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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