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January 22, 2013

HAYDEN: Getting back on track

Another Daniels takes lead in sentencing reform

INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, Gov. Mitch Daniels set out to reform prison sentencing in Indiana, convinced that the state’s spiraling prison costs were eventually going to squeeze out other budget priorities, including education.

For a long list of reasons — including significant resistance from prosecutors around the state — he couldn’t get it done.

But now, his sister might.

Deborah Daniels is a former prosecutor who served as a U.S. assistant attorney general in the administration of President George W. Bush before returning to Indiana to practice law.

In early 2011, she played a supportive role in crafting the legislative proposal her brother championed as a solution to the state’s rising prison costs.

That proposal was built on a set of reforms governing sentencing and parole. The details are complex but the goal is straightforward:

Make punishment more proportional to the crime, reserve prison for the most serious offenders, and get the drug addicts and low-level offenders out from behind prison bars and into treatment and supervision programs to reduce recidivism.

It was such an ambitious proposal that it’s not surprising it didn’t gain the traction needed to pass through the Indiana General Assembly back in 2011. Many thought sentencing reform had just died.

But Deborah Daniels helped revive it.

In the summer of 2011, the legislative-appointed Criminal Code Evaluation Commission asked her to head up a “work group” of attorneys that took an intensive look at Indiana’s criminal laws.

That work group included Andrew Cullen from the Indiana Public Defender Council and Suzanne O’Malley of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council — representing two strong and often opposing points of view — as well as a former Marion County drug prosecutor and a small army of law school interns.  

They spent months identifying where Indiana’s criminal code was inconsistent, redundant and top-heavy in punishment.

Then, working with the commission members, they recommended changes to the code to make it more fair.

Typical of the recommendations they made: Someone caught near a schoolyard with a few grams of cocaine shouldn’t face a harsher prison sentence than a rapist.

The work of that work group is what formed the framework for a 422-page bill now in the General Assembly: Legislation that rewrites much of Indiana’s criminal code.

Once again, the proposal puts forth a set of reforms governing sentencing and parole. And once again, the details are complex but the goal is straightforward:

Make punishment more proportional to the crime, reserve prison for the most serious offenders, and get the drug addicts and low-level offenders out from behind prison bars and into treatment and supervision programs to reduce recidivism.

The legislation has a long way to go. It contains elements — like reduction in drug penalties — that might scare lawmakers who like to keep an eye on the next election.

But it was Deborah Daniels — remember: a former prosecutor — who best described the thinking behind the effort, in an interview with the Indianapolis Business Journal:

“How do you find ways to help people take a different turn in life when they come out of prison, instead of treating them like criminals for the rest of their lives and thereby encouraging them to be criminals?” Daniels asked. “Can you make some changes that would give people a chance?”

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

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