By Maureen Hayden
---- — INDIANAPOLIS – Earlier this year, Indiana lawmakers passed major sentencing reform legislation that rewrote the felony portion of the state’s criminal code, but left unanswered questions about its fiscal impact on local communities and the state prison system.
Now, two independent, state-funded studies are underway to provide more information to lawmakers as they move ahead with an ambitious effort to divert more low-level offenders out of the state’s Department of Correction and into community-based programs.
One study, being done by the Georgia-based Applied Research Services, is looking at whether the state’s new felony sentencing structure will reverse the historical trend of a rising prison population, or, as some fear, escalate it dramatically.
The other study underway, done by Indiana University criminal-justice researcher Roger Jarjoura, is looking at the fractured system of local treatment programs aimed at reducing recidivism to determine their costs and benefits.
The studies are being done at the request of the legislature’s Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee. Its members have spent nearly four years reviewing and revising the state’s criminal code, which was last overhauled in 1977.
“We knew this was a big task, and we’ve gotten a lot of work done so far,” said State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, a Republican from Avon and former committee chairman. “I don’t think we realized the enormity of it, though.”
During the 2013 session, the General Assembly passed a 450-page bill, House Enrolled Act 1006, that rewrites the felony portion of the state’s criminal code. Authors of the bill, including Steuerwald, set out with several goals in mind: They wanted to reserve prison for the most serious offenders, ensure proportional penalties for different crimes, create like sentences for like crimes, and increase the certainty on the length of prison sentences.
The new law expands the state’s current four levels of felonies to six and it requires offenders to serve at least 75 percent of their prison terms, instead of the current 50 percent. It also reduces penalties for drug crimes – Indiana has some of the harshest in the nation – and it gives judges much more discretion to let low-level offenders serve their time in community-based correction programs.
But the law doesn’t go into effect until July 2014. The bill’s authors fashioned it that way to give themselves time to figure out how much additional funding is needed to implement the law.
In late March, as the bill was being considered, officials with Department of Correction said the legislation would blow up the prison population. The DOC said several provisions in the bill, including tougher sentences for violent and sex crimes and the reduction in “credit time” that offenders could earn for good behavior and educational courses, would increase the state’s prison population by 70 percent in 20 years.
The DOC’s fiscal analysis caught lawmakers by surprise, since it conflicted with an analysis by the Legislative Services Agency – the non-partisan research arm of General Assembly -- that says the bill would lead to a small increase in prison population before significantly dropping off.
The bill also faced significant opposition from local court and criminal-justice officials, who supported the larger goal of sentencing reform, but feared the new law would just result in cost-shifting from the state to local communities.
Indiana spends about $720 million a year on prisons. But the new law came with no funding for the local jails, community corrections programs and probation departments to absorb the low-level offenders that are supposed to be diverted from the state prisons under the new law. And it came with no additional funding for the critical mental health and substance-abuse treatment programs that are seen by judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys alike as critical to reducing recidivism. About 40 percent of offenders who come out of the DOC commit another crime within three years.
Larry Landis, head of the Indiana Public Defender Council and a member of the study committee, said studies have shown about 80 percent of incarcerated offenders have drug or alcohol addictions or other mental health problems.
“You can’t just put someone on the probation rolls and hope for the best,” Landis said.
He worries that it may be tough politically to get more funding for treatment programs, since supporters of alternatives to prison can be seen as “soft on crime.” But he also believes it critical and hopes legislators see it that way too.
“We’ve got to stop spending all our resources on punishment, and ask ‘How do we reduce recidivism?’ Because if we can reduce that, we reduce crime and then we all win.’ “
Steuerwald is confident that the two studies underway now will help lawmakers move forward. “There are a number of states that have already done sentencing reform, and have found that it not only reduced costs but reduced crime rates and reduced recidivism,” he said. “So that’s the goal. I think almost everybody in the criminal justice system understands that, but it’s just a matter of getting right.”
The two studies aren’t expected to be completed until later this year, which required the legislative study committee to get permission from legislative leaders to extend their deadline until the year’s end for completing their work. Legislative study committees typically have until late October to complete their work.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com