INDIANAPOLIS– There are approximately 28,000 men and women incarcerated in Indiana prisons at a cost of $52 a day, and corrections officials predict that population could increase to 41,000 by 2033.
The price tag for a new prison is estimated at $140 million, with staffing costs at $35 million the first year.
State lawmakers and supporters of a plan to rewrite Indiana’s criminal code for the first time in 40 years think there’s got to be a cheaper way.
“What I’m asking is to get really smart on crime, not soft on crime, but smart on crime by using the tools at our disposal now,” said Bloomington Judge Theresa Harper.
The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee took testimony on HB 1006 to revamp the Indiana Criminal Code.
The rewrite would create six felony classifications, as opposed to the current four, and reduce penalties for some non-violent offenses.
Drug possession and thefts under $750 would be classified as lower felonies or even misdemeanors.
“We aren’t winning the war on drugs,” said prison missionary Phyllis Newton, who told the committee women are being sentenced excessively for drug crimes.
Governor Mike Pence disagrees.
“I think we need to work on reducing crime, not reducing penalties,” said the governor.
Legislators were outraged last year as Fox 59 News reported the case of Chris Wheat, a swimming coach convicted of sexual misconduct charges with a teenage girl who was able to cut his sentence by more than half because of good behavior behind bars and credit for his college studies.
The criminal code revision would change Indiana’s good time policy from one-day sentence reduction for one-day good behavior to a 3-1 ratio, which would force serious felons to serve at least 75 percent of their prison terms.
There would also be a cutback in the sentence reductions inmates could receive for completing college courses while in prison.
Critics of the bill said it may serve to boost the state prison population.
“I would predict that we’re going to increase the prison population,” said Larry Landis of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, “because you’ve got a combination of time served actually increasing and you’ve got the good time credit changing.”
Landis also said that the lawmakers must shift money away from the state corrections system to the local sheriffs and probation officers who would be responsible for monitoring offenders who would have been sent to prison in the past.
“Don’t pass it in this form because the burden is going to be shifted onto the counties,” Landis testified. “There’s no question that’s where it’s going and if the resources aren’t there these people are not going to be monitored. They’re not going to be supervised. They’re going to be public safety threats. They’re going to violation probation and then they’re going to be back in the DOC and they’re going to make the problem worse.”
Judge Harper pointed to the success of drug courts and courts focused on the needs of military veterans who could be suffering from PTSD or substance abuse problems.
“Instead of treating everybody the same, what we’re doing is we are addressing what they actually need.”
If the bill is passed during this legislative session, it could go into effect in the summer of 2014.