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.
“Too much discretion leads to inconsistent sentencing,” Taylor said.
But State Sen. Greg Steuerwald, a Republican attorney from Avon, cautioned against setting an immovable line, saying it could take away prosecutors’ leverage to get defendants to plead guilty to lesser crimes that carry less prison time.
State Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat lawyer from Bloomington, said the conflicting views expressed at the meeting illustrated a larger issue: “The question is, what is our criminal justice system about and how it is supposed to function?”
Bray’s response to the extended conversation appeared to be resigned exasperation. He’d been behind the plan for the commission to take up the issue of the state’s theft laws, hoping it would be the first step toward a more comprehensive plan to overhaul how Indiana sentences people who commit crimes.
“I started with theft because I thought it would be less contentious,” Bray said, before setting a date of July 27 for the commission’s next meeting.
The commission recommendations are expected to carry some weight in the next legislative session. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has said sentencing reform would be a priority next year, in the last legislative session of his second and final term in office.
Behind that push are fiscal issues. The Indiana Department of Correction has seen a significant growth in its prison population in the last decade and Daniels has warned that the state would have to build new prisons or release inmates early to handle the capacity.
• Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org