How Fair Sentencing Strengthens Public Safety


For the last five years, as an Indiana state senator, I've been deeply involved in the rewrite of Indiana's criminal code in hopes of regaining proportionality of punishment, which is required by our state constitution—the first such rewrite since 1974.

Why was a rewrite needed?

My own journey offers an answer. When I entered the Indiana House of Representatives in the 1990s, I had practiced law for about 30 years, and also served as a public defender. That earlier experience influenced my approach as a legislator,

For example, there was a terrible murder in Scott County, IN, where the victim was tortured prior to her death. I was sickened by the knowledge that her assailants could only get 60 years behind bars. So I authored a bill that said if you burn, torture or mutilate a victim prior to murder, you can get the death penalty or life without parole.

Smaller incidents also gave rise to bills of their own, which increased penalties for other crimes.

But I realized that if penalties for various crimes were raised one by one, then eventually you would have low-level criminals receiving more time than violent criminals.

As chair of the Indiana Senate Committee on Judiciary, I believed that our state criminal code needed to be revamped in order to make sentencing fairer, decrease recidivism and avoid building a new prison—all the while keeping the worst criminals behind bars.

It was a complex task.

We put together a team of lawmakers, judges, police officers, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and many experts from the criminal justice field before the process began. We also worked closely with the governor's office and the state Department of Correction (DOC).

After thousands of hours and hundreds of meetings, two pieces of legislation were created: House Bill 1006 from 2013 and House Bill 1006 from 2014.

Not only did we rewrite the criminal code, we rewrote Title 9 laws, dealing with motor vehicles and suspension, Title 7.1 laws, dealing with alcohol offenses, and Title 14, dealing with Department of Natural Resources violations.

Under the new criminal code, we created six levels of felonies instead of four classes. We also returned more power to judges to suspend sentences.

Moreover, the rewrite increased the time served to 75 percent for all felonies expect for Level Six, which we left at 50 percent—a-day-for-a-day good time credit.

The update also increased the weight of drugs that must be present to raise a person's penalty.

For example, we made the possession of one gram or less of cocaine a Level Six felony, and the possession of five grams or less of marijuana a misdemeanor no matter how many times you get charged.

We got rid of the charge of possession with intent to distribute by mere weight alone. Now there has to be some evidence of an act of distribution.

Prosecutors will have the right to enter into deferred prosecution agreements not only on all misdemeanors but Level Five and Six felonies as well. Judges will also have the right to modify the prisoner's sentence twice in the lifetime of their sentence.

For all offenders who are charged with a Level Six felony and sentenced to less than 365 days in prison, the time must be served under local supervision, not at DOC.

We also decreased the kinds of motor vehicle violations that result in felony time, which will cut the prison population by 500 annually.

And most importantly, the legislature put $11 million back into local probation and community correction programs. The funds will help local programs dealing with home incarceration and treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.

According to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 85 percent of the prison population in 2010 needed treatment for substance abuse.

With this growing problem, we had to start trying to remedy it before it got any worse.

“Warehousing” those who are addicts isn't going to help them learn how to stay sober and avoid recidivism, so we hope these local rehabilitation programs can help these offenders with their problems.

It has been a monumental effort. HB 1006, passed this year, is the culmination of years of hard work from many lawmakers and experts in the criminal justice field.

In the end, I think we achieved our goals to make sentences fairer, decrease recidivism and keep dangerous criminals off our streets.

Brent Steele is a Republican member of the Indiana State Senate, where he serves as chair of the Judiciary Committee. Representing the 44th District since 2004, he was named 2013 Legislator of the Year by the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association. Sen. Steele welcomes comments from readers.

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