INDIANAPOLIS | Five years of bipartisan review, debate and negotiation paid off Wednesday as a House committee unanimously approved the first major overhaul of Indiana's criminal code since 1977.
"It is a big, big deal," said state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, a co-sponsor of House Bill 1006. "This is good for Hoosiers, it really is."
The 422-page proposal is a wholesale rethinking of felony crime and punishment with an eye toward improving the proportionality and certainty of prison time, reserving prison for the most serious offenders, and getting drug addicts and low-level offenders into treatment to reduce recidivism.
Under the plan, the current four levels of felonies would be expanded to six. That ensures similar crimes are treated the same way and that the most serious offenses get the toughest penalties, said state Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, co-sponsor of the measure.
"We've done a pretty good job separating the people we're afraid of from the people we're mad at," Steuerwald said.
Sentencing ranges for each of the six felony levels haven't been set, but lawmakers said the additional levels of felony classification will result in more precise sentences, unlike the 20- to 50-year punishment currently possible for a Class A felony.
The legislation also requires felons serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of receiving day-for-day good behavior credit, which often cuts sentences in half. In addition, the measure limits sentence reductions currently awarded for earning a high school diploma or college degree.
Low-level felons, currently Class C or D, which would become Level 5 or 6 under the proposal, would be less likely to go to prison and instead serve their time in county jails or under intensive supervision in a community corrections program.
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said studies show that's the best way to stop repeat offenders, which ultimately saves the state money despite a higher initial cost.
The budget impact of the proposal has yet to be calculated by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
Lawson said she expects the state will have to give counties new money to administer corrections programs if the measure becomes law.
"It's going to be a little difficult at first as far as paying for it, but in the long run it's going to be better for all of us," Lawson said.
The proposal is supported by the state associations of prosecutors, defense attorneys, sheriffs and counties, all of whom worked with the state's Criminal Code Evaluation Commission since 2009 to shape the legislation.
It must still be approved by the House Ways and Means Committee before the measure can go to the full House for a vote to send it to the Senate.
If signed into law, the proposal wouldn't take effect until July 1, 2014, to give Hoosiers time to get used to the changes and lawmakers a chance to make additional reforms next year.