Indianapolis — Some Indiana lawmakers tasked with rewriting the state’s criminal code got a glimpse of how difficult that task may be when they found themselves engaged in a philosophical argument over a stolen purse.
Prompted by concerns that low-level offenders who’ve committed property crimes are crowding Indiana’s prisons, the state’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission met Wednesday to talk about overhauling the current theft laws.
On the table was a proposal to set a monetary threshold for what would constitute a felony theft that carries prison time. According to the commission’s researchers, Indiana is the only state in the nation that has no threshold, meaning a prosecutor can charge a suspect with a felony theft, no matter how big or small the value of the item stolen.
The commission chairman, state Sen. Richard Bray, had hoped to find a simple resolution. As the Martinsville Republican noted at the meeting, “I think we can draw some distinction between Bernie Madoff and the kid who stole a pack of chewing gum.”
But it’s the thefts in between those two extremes that pose the problem, commission members learned.
State Sen. Randy Head, a former prosecutor from Logansport, raised questions about setting a threshold of $750 — a limit that had been proposed in a comprehensive sentencing-reform bill that failed to make it through the last legislative session.
Why, he wanted to know, should a thief who steals a purse with $749 in it be charged with a misdemeanor while a thief who steals a purse with $751 in it be charged with felony?
That set off a discussion about crime and punishment and how much discretion prosecutors and judges should have when it comes to charging and sentencing offenders.
State Sen. Greg Taylor, a Democrat attorney from Indianapolis, argued for a clear, bright line with little discretion.