Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Local News

April 21, 2013

Disagreements stall criminal code reform bill

The legislative session ends April 29.

Indianapolis — Negotiations over the final language in a bill that rewrites Indiana’s criminal code may come down to the last week of the legislative session.

The House authors of the bill aren’t happy with the changes made by the Senate that toughen penalties for some crimes and give judges less latitude in sentencing.

Those disagreements have pushed the bill into a House-Senate conference committee, where legislators from both chambers have to hammer out their differences before the session ends April 29.

Republican state Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, who carried the bill in the House, is concerned the Senate changes may undermine one of the bill’s major goals: less incarceration and more rehabilitation at the local level of low-level offenders that are crowding the state prisons.

But Republican state Sen. Randy Head, a former deputy prosecutor from Logansport who pushed for the Senate changes, said the bill’s purpose “should be to sentence smarter, not necessarily to sentence lesser.”

“If someone needs to go to prison, they need to go,” Head said.  

Steuerwald and Head disagree on a provision in the original bill that would have given judges more discretion to make that decision. That measure did away with some of the mandatory prison sentences now in the criminal code and gave judges more latitude to suspend a prison sentence and opt for alternative community-based treatment and correction programs.

In the House version of the bill, the only crimes ineligible for suspended sentences were the worst crimes, such as murder. The Senate changed that provision to restrict judges from suspending sentences of those convicted of all but the lowest level of felonies if the offender has a previous conviction.

Still, there are big areas of agreement on the legislation, including tougher penalties for violent and sex crimes and lower penalties for drug and theft crimes.

The biggest unresolved issue is money: The $30 billion budget bill that’s still being hammered contains no additional funding for the local jails, community corrections and probation departments that will have to absorb the biggest impact of the criminal code reform bill.  

And there’s no additional funding for the substance abuse and mental health treatment programs that the bill’s supporters want used to help reduce the recidivism rates of low-level offenders whose crimes are tied to drug abuse and mental illness.

Steuerwald and Head agree on that. Both have been pushing for more dollars to go back to the local communities where more low-level offenders will be doing their time.

“In order for this entire concept to work, we need to get the funding to community corrections programs and local jails to run the rehabilitation programs for low level offenders,” Head said.

So far, the roadblock has been Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, a Republican from Noblesville and one of the chief budget makers in the legislature.

Kenley’s concern: No one really knows the fiscal impact of the bill. The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency initially estimated that about 1,000 offenders would be kept in their local communities each year rather than to prison. The Association of Indiana Counties says the number may be closer to 5,000. The Indiana Department of Correction recently said the bill would actually drive up state prison numbers.

“I’m not sure why we should appropriate money when we have no idea what we need to have at this point in time,” Kenley said.

Kenley said funding could wait, since the criminal code bill, as written now, doesn’t go into effect until July 2014. It’s not a popular view, Kenley conceded, since it would require changing the state budget in an off-budget year. “I think they want the money now,” Kenley said.

One option being considered: Pass the bulk of the criminal code bill this session, but pull out the disputed provisions over sentencing issues and send that to a summer study committee. It would give the bill’s supporters more time to figure out its true fiscal impact and get more input from local communities about what they’ll need.  

“The bill isn’t ready to become law,” said Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council. The Council played a key role in crafting the original bill, along with prosecutors, judges, probation officers and other key stakeholders in the criminal justice system.

“We need a legislative-imposed sequester on this bill,” Cullen said. “We could leave some things out of the bill now to give the legislature the time to make better decisions before it goes into effect in 2014.”

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

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