INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers are trying to find the money to help
counties handle more low-level felons in work release and other local
programs rather than send them to state prison.
The issue is expected to be on the table when the Criminal Code Evaluation
Commission meets Thursday at the Statehouse.
The commission’s work is part of an effort started by Gov. Mitch Daniels in
2010 to overhaul Indiana’s criminal justice system. The sentencing overhaul
has stalled in the Legislature the past two years, but state prisons are
near capacity and if nothing is done the state might have to build more
prisons or release inmates earlier.
Some legislators believe some nonviolent offenders could be handled more
cheaply and more successfully with local programs, but the idea has been
opposed by prosecutors, who argue that prison is appropriate in some
Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville and chairman of the commission, said some
counties already are choosing to keep certain low-level felons at the local
“We’ve been doing that for years,” said Dearborn-Ohio County Prosecutor
Aaron Negangard, who serves on the board of the Indiana Prosecuting
A study by two professors from Indiana University-Purdue University at
Indianapolis reviewed by the panel in September found that most Class D
felons in the Indiana Department of Correction had three or more prior
convictions. About half of those were sent to prison due to probation or
parole violations rather than fresh crimes, said criminologist G. Roger
Jarjoura and sociologist Thomas D. Stucky, the study’s authors.
The same study showed that a majority of those who had violated probation
had committed technical violations such as missing appointments or failing a
drug test, and not committed new crimes.
“Everybody says that’s a waste of money, why don’t we just keep them in the
counties,” commission member Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana
Public Defender Council, said Tuesday. “But to do that you’re going to
increase the caseload on the county level.”
But Negangard said the study “has shown that we’re putting the right people
“This idea of someone stealing a candy bar and going to prison is just not
true,” he said.
Officials say cash-strapped counties, still reeling from plummeting tax
revenues due to the recession, can’t afford the extra load on their
community corrections programs.
“It is a funding issue with us,” said David Bottorff, executive director of
the Association of Indiana Counties. “If adequate funds are tied to the
offenders so we have resources for proper programs, we will be OK with the
The proposal to be considered by the commission would shift $1.9 million
from the prison agency budget into grants to help local governments pay for
innovative correctional programs, Foley said.
“If we want to encourage counties to adopt best practices and reduce
recidivism, improve public safety, then we’ve got to spend a little money to
achieve those goals,” he said.
Botorff said officials figure the sources for the funds could include state
savings from housing fewer prisoners, court fees and diversion fees, but no
one knows for sure whether that amount would be adequate to cover the
counties’ increased costs.
“It’s not enough, but I think it’s doable,” Foley said.
Randy Koester, the prison agency’s deputy commissioner of re-entry, said one
reason so many low-level felons are confined in state prisons is because
laws that don’t allow judges to suspend their sentences, often because they
have prior convictions. Foley questioned the wisdom of automatically sending
people to prison when their prior records include alcohol- or
“Tough on crime comes with a cost,” Bottorff said. “Maybe we’ve reached a
time where we need to reevaluate these mandatory sentences.”
Foley said the legislation his panel is working on would give local
authorities more flexibility in tailoring individual sentences.
“This person needs his feet nailed to the floor, and this person needs to go
to work,” he said.
Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson said the decision on sentencing change
was up to legislators, but moving the emphasis to community corrections for
low-level criminals appeared to have merit.
“It appears a robust program of community corrections and intensive
probation supervision offers the promise of increased public safety, reduced
recidivism and tremendous savings to taxpayers,” Dickson said in a
statement. “All of this is consistent with the Indiana Constitution which
affirms principals of reformation — not vindictive justice.”
Criminal Code Evaluation Commission member Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington,
said the panel could recommend changes to the Legislature, but the decision
would be up to the House and Senate committees that decide state spending.
“Obviously, counties are strapped,” Pierce said.