Criminal code revamp long way from over

2013-05-12T23:00:00Z 2013-05-13T10:00:05Z Criminal code revamp long way from overSusan Brown, (219) 662-5325

CROWN POINT | Despite being signed into law last week, the first revision of the Indiana Criminal Code in decades is far from a done deal.

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said the bill has a long way to go before it can be implemented.

"It clearly can't go into effect without a lot more work," he said Friday.

Powell said the coming months will find much pressure put on stakeholders, including prosecutors, before the law goes into effect on July 1, 2014, a full year longer than typical for new legislation.

Its major features include the expansion of the four levels of felonies to six, the most serious of felons to serve 75 percent of their sentence instead of 50 percent, and low-level felons to serve time in county jails or alternative community corrections programs.

Powell joined Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, in saying the goal of the re-write was largely to create proportionality in sentencing.

"This is the first time we've taken a comprehensive look at all felonies," Landis said. The intent was to rank them in severity.

For example, possessing 3 grams of cocaine, roughly each the size of a packet of sweetener, can result in a sentence of six to 20 years in prison, the same as rape or armed robbery.

"It made no sense," Landis said.

Powell said at least 68 penalties for the most serious crimes have been increased, while those for drug offenses and property crimes have been reduced.

Higher-level felons will serve more time in prison while lower level felons will serve less, resulting in an overall reduced prison population, Powell said.

"We realize there's only so much money but would never risk public safety," Powell said of the task.

However, Landis said some of the increased penalties are significant, creating a whole new set of potential problems.

"There was no data presented for increasing sentences," he said. "They send people to prison who don't need to be there and who will actually get worse."

Landis also questions the benefit of reducing the credit time earned by serious felons, a feature insisted on by prosecutors. He questions the purpose of keeping a 19-year-old with no long history of violence in prison until his 60s.

For prosecutors, Powell said that has been an issue for a long time. People question why a 40-year sentence for child molesting, for example, gets reduced by half or even more depending on educational credits, he said.

Joel Schumm, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said while the overhaul was long overdue, he questions if the bill will achieve the goal of reducing the need for more prisons. His primary concern is the reduction in credit time for good behavior, he said.

"Because the sentencing ranges are so large, it's hard to know how the revisions will play out in trial courtrooms across the state," he said. "Although judges will have more discretion to put defendants on probation, there is no guarantee this will happen, or will happen consistently."

Criminal defense attorney Larry Rogers, of Valparaiso, said of what he has studied of the bill so far, there is "some good, some bad."

Rogers said prosecutors lobbied to minimize substantial changes as far as more severe crimes, but agreed to reduce some lower-level felonies to misdemeanors.

"It's a lot more community corrections-based, primarily because the state is running out of money," Rogers said.

Criminal defense attorney John Vouga, with offices in Crown Point and Portage, said the code has needed an overhaul for a long time. He is happy with the effort to lessen the penalty for nonviolent felonies in particular.

"What I think is completely wrong is any notion that requiring someone to serve 75 percent instead of 50 percent of a sentence is going to create a stronger deterrent," he said.

"Federal prisoners do more than 50 percent of their time, and I think those prosecutors are just as busy," he said.

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