Indianapolis — When Joseph W. Brown was moved out of the maximum security Indiana State Prison last June, it was to make way for someone even worse, Indiana Department of Correction officials contend.
What was made clear later, however, was that Brown hadn’t gotten over the urge to harm his fellow inmates, even if the DOC had decided to reclassify him as a minimum/medium security risk.
Police said Brown strangled his Miami Correctional Facility cell mate, Charles Miller, simply because Brown didn’t like being at the Bunker Hill Facility.
Now Brown is back at the Westville Control Unit, the small, maximum-security lockdown facility where he was once housed for more than three years, after committing a plethora of assaults and other serious offenses at another maximum security facility.
To place Brown back into the Westville Control Unit, the DOC had to move someone else out.
That’s the nature of the prison overcrowding problem in Indiana, where bed space for the most violent offenders is always in short supply.
As of April, the DOC had 6,120 male inmates classified at the highest security level, and only 26 vacant beds for that level. By comparison, the DOC had 15,737 inmates at the second highest security level, and 440 bed spaces for that level.
State prison officials acknowledge that’s why more and more maximum security offenders are being placed at Miami Correctional, a prison state officials once said would remain a minimum/medium security facility.
According to the DOC, part of the reason maximum security space is scarce is the number of low-level offenders being sentenced to prison.
The number of people in the Indiana DOC system for a Class D felony — the lowest on Indiana’s four-tier scale of felonies — grew by 31 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to DOC statistics.
That growth far outpaced the prison population as a whole, which grew by 6.8 percent in the same period.
The overcrowding problem was thrust into the spotlight late last year, when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels backed a study that claimed that if nothing was done to change Indiana’s criminal justice system, the state would end up spending an additional $1.2 billion over the next seven years to build and operate new prisons.
“There’s no question [overcrowding is] driving the discussion,” said Larry Landis, director of the Indiana Public Defender’s Council. “It was the intersection of the recession and prison overcrowding, and realizing we cannot build our way out of it, because if we do, we’re going to start to impact education and other services.”
Wednesday, the Indiana Senate’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission got down to the sticky details of proposing changes to state laws.
Specifically, the commission was set to look at Indiana’s lack of a misdemeanor theft charge, something that makes Indiana unique among the states.
Indiana has a misdemeanor conversion statute, which was supposed to serve that function, but former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels, who is heading a committee of attorneys charged with providing data for the commission, said prosecutors rarely use it.
Commission members appeared to agree that the main reason prosecutors appear to prefer charging individuals with theft — which is a Class D felony for anything under $100,000 — is because it is easier to obtain a conviction when a felony charge is hanging over someone’s head.
Whether it is fair to charge a first-time offender with a felony for stealing something of small value was where the disagreement started.
“I think we’ve learned that discretion [for prosecutors] leads to unfair sentences, and if we allow it to continue, we’ll see the same inconsistencies,” said State Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis.
State Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, said prosecutors often agree to drop the felony theft charge down to a misdemeanor conversion charge if the defendant makes full restitution.
“If we take that away, it’s going to be harder to get restitution,” Head said.
After 90 minutes, it was clear the philosophical debate about providing charging discretion to prosecutors might be a much bigger factor in the commission’s deliberations than prison overcrowding.
And the commission’s chairman, State Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, said he didn’t want the prison population issue to be the driving force behind the discussions.
In the 2011 Indiana General Assembly, debate over an omnibus criminal code bill, Senate Bill 561, broke down in part because the Indiana Prosecuting Attorney’s Council wanted to enhance sentencing provisions, so that high-level offenders would serve more prison time.
Bray said the prosecutors wanted those enhancements in return for supporting measures which would result in less jail time for lesser offenses, such as allowing judges to suspend all jail time for some offenses.
Current state law forbids judges from suspending jail time for some Class D felony offenses, like when a convicted lifetime habitual traffic violator is caught driving.
“The prison population, that is not what I’m looking at,” Bray said. “Sometimes it may go up, and sometimes it may go down, but we don’t have a scale out there, that every time we have a sentencing enhancement, we need to eliminate some non-suspendable crime.”
Steve Johnson, director of the prosecuting attorneys council, said the council is trying to independently come up with research on the overcrowding issue.
“What was really not answered last session — and I think there were assumptions — was whether the right people are in the DOC,” Johnson said.
As for the DOC’s contention that low-level offenders are helping to create a scarcity of maximum-level beds, Johnson said he disagrees.
“The offenders people generally consider non-violent offenders are put in dormitories. You get above that grade, they need their own separate cells. The Class C and Class D felons coming into our prisons are not pushing these people out of their cells,” Johnson said.
• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org