A proposal to enact much harsher penalties in Indiana for dealing drugs when it results in a death is on its way to the governor for his expected signature.
Proponents say the measure will give them a needed tool in the growing battle against illegal opiate drug use. But the head of the state's public defender council warns it is a misguided reaction that could over penalize many drug offenders and potentially cost taxpayers a lot more money.
House Bill 1359, which recently cleared the state House and on Tuesday afternoon passed the Senate, calls for enhancing the criminal charges and penalties for making or dealing certain controlled substances that result in the death of the users, according to one of the proposal's co-authors, State Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
The war against drugs demands toughness and tenderness, he said.
"This is the toughness part," Pelath said.
Larry Landis, executive director with the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the increased penalties go too far and are inconsistent with the recent revamping of the state criminal code to bring charges into proportion with penalties.
The lowest level drug charge, which currently calls for no more than jail time, could be inflated to the highest level charge under this bill, resulting in 20 to 40 years in prison, he said. This could be the case if someone has an allergic reaction to the drug, mixes it with other drugs or just does too much, despite that the person providing the drug had no intention of causing a death, he said.
While proponents are playing down the financial impact of the bill, saying it will not be applied all that often, Landis said there is potential for a high price tag. There is an estimated 1,000 drug overdoses each year in the state and there are lots of local prosecutors who will have the discretion of seeking the enhanced sentences at an annual cost of $25,000 a year for housing each inmate in the state prison system.
"I don't pretend this is a panacea," Pelath said.
The approach is just one of several that must be used together to combat the drug problem, he said.
"It's another method of getting at the really bad guys," Pelath said.
Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds, who has made a couple of trips to Indianapolis to testify in favor of the bill, said the legislation would provide a much-welcomed tool in the area's ongoing battle against heroin and other illegal opiate use.
The proposal would help make the connection between those who are providing the drugs and the victims of fatal overdoses, even if those who are feeding the local demand are outside the state, he said.
"I think we would go after those people in Illinois, if we can prove it," Reynolds said.
After the Senate passed the bill onto Gov. Eric Holcomb's desk Tuesday afternoon, the state's chief executive issued a statement.
“In our state’s all-in attack on the opioid epidemic, enforcement plays an important role in decreasing the supply of and demand for these devastating substances," Holcomb said in a written statement. "I commend lawmakers for advancing this bill that sends a clear message to anyone who would profit from the drug crisis: If you deal or make drugs that result in the death of a Hoosier, you will be charged with a felony and go to prison for a very long time. I look forward to signing this bill that is a key part of our comprehensive work to enhance prevention, treatment and enforcement to curb the opioid epidemic.”