Indiana News

House Set to Vote on Overhaul of Criminal Sentencing

Bill shortens sentences for less serious crimes but gives less credit time

2/20/2013


House Judiciary Chairman Greg Steuerwald (R-Avon, left) and Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington). (WIBC.com photo: Eric Berman)

The House votes Monday on the biggest overhaul of Indiana sentencing laws in 36 years.

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A line-by-line rewrite of the criminal code expands the current four classes of felony into six. There would be lower sentencing ranges for the least serious crimes. More serious offenders wouldn't face longer sentences, but they'd have to serve more of them. The law replaces the current good-behavior credit of one day for every day served with a day for every three days, and caps offenders' leeway to reduce their sentences further by taking high school or college courses.

The maximum sentence for the least serious crimes would be trimmed from three years to two-and-a-half, while the next level up would have a maximum of six years instead of the current eight. But offenders in those groups, especially drug offenders, would be subject to more intensive probation after their release, in hopes of addressing underlying causes and reducing the likelihood they'll land back in prison.

The expansion of classifications takes place with the upper-level felonies. Murder would retain its current status as a superfelony standing apart from the classification system. The sentencing range for murder and the highest classification of felonies would be unchanged. But some crimes now charged in that group would become "Level 2 felonies," with a possible sentence of 10-to-30 years instead of 20-to-50.

Crimes currently listed as Class B felonies, which carry six-to-20 years, would now be split into Level 3 and 4. The Level 3 maximum would still be 20 years, but judges could go as low as three years. And Level 4 crimes would carry a range of two-to-12 years.

The proposed revision also gives judges discretion to suspend sentences for anything except murder or repeat serious offenders. Current law allows suspended sentences only for the two lowest classifications or for a handful of nonviolent Class B felonies.

The bill marks the culmination of a four-year review of the criminal code initiated by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald (R-Avon) says the overhaul has the support of prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges, including Chief Justice Brent Dickson, who highlighted the bill in his State of the Judiciary address. Steuerwald says the changes will make sentences more certain and more proportional, with the side benefit of buying an extra four or five years before Indiana needs a new prison.

Bloomington Representative Matt Pierce (D), the ranking Democrat on the Criminal Code Committee, says the current code is showing the effects of three decades of individual laws requiring tougher penalties for specific crimes. The result, he says, is a patchwork of laws which don't always make sense when compared side-by-side, with some circumstances in which drug or bad-check charges are more serious than sex crimes or battery.

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