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Report New law to reduce prison overcrowding and expense will likely make things worse

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RICK CALLAHAN,

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Sweeping changes that Indiana lawmakers made this year to sentencing guidelines in hopes of slowing the growth of the state's prison population will actually have the opposite effect, according to a report presented Tuesday to a legislative committee.

The panel hired Applied Research Services Inc. to analyze Indiana's revised sentencing guidelines, which are scheduled to take effect next July. Its report concludes the changes will increase the state's prison population over the next 10 years.

John Speir, the co-founder of the Atlanta-based consulting firm, told committee members the new law's requirement that inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences will offset changes lawmakers made in reclassifying offenses and setting new sentencing ranges.

Indiana's current law allows most inmates to be released after serving half or less of their sentences if they stay out of trouble while behind bars.

The sentencing overhaul approved by lawmakers in April was designed to reduce the need to build new prison space or release inmates early by placing low-level offenders in probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs.

Speir's analysis projects that Indiana's prison population will increase under the new guidelines from about 30,000 in 2014 to more than 35,500 by 2024. In contrast, the analysis found that if the state's current sentencing provisions were to remain in place, Indiana's prison population would rise to just above 34,000 inmates by 2024.

Previous studies of the new law's impact conducted by the state's Department of Correction and the Legislative Services Agency had found that Indiana's prison population would remain flat or decrease in the years ahead.

Speir said his consulting firm tracks sentencing guideline changes either proposed or enacted in six states. He said the long-term effect of such changes are often unclear.

"It can take years for the impact to become apparent," he told members of the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study committee.

The panel's chairman, Sen. Michael Young, said lawmakers are expected to sponsor legislation seeking to alter the new law's suspended sentence elements and other provisions in their session that begins in January.

Young, R-Indianapolis, said the firm's report is expected to add fuel to those pushes.

"The report we got today showing that the numbers are still going to go up it's not what we thought was going to happen. So we've got to look at sentencing to see if there are things we can alter to keep that number either steady or reduce it a little bit," he said.

The Indiana Department of Correction projects that the state's prison population, which currently stands at about 29,500 inmates, will top 30,000 by June 2014.

Indiana's new admissions to its prison system surged 9 percent during fiscal year 2013, a big increase from the 1 percent to 2 percent annual increase the state had seen each year since 2009.

Speir told the panel he believes the 9 percent increase is an anomaly, but Young said lawmakers are eager to see whether that trend continues.

Posted 12/10/2013