A committee of Indiana senators gave its blessing Monday to a plan that would keep violent felons in prison longer and downgrade punishments for many thefts and drug crimes.
The proposal comes at the urging of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has asked the General Assembly to reform Indiana's sentencing guidelines to slow the growth of the state's prison population. The number of inmates in Indiana jumped 40 percent during the past decade to about 29,000.
Senate Bill 561 aims to battle repeat offenses by directing low-level felons to probation, community corrections and drug treatment programs instead of prison.
It would also require child molesters, kidnappers, murderers, rapists, robbers and those convicted of battery, neglect and voluntary manslaughter to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Under current law, people convicted of those crimes are able to earn credits through good behavior that can reduce their prison time by as much as half.
The Senate Committee on Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters voted 8-2 to move S.B. 561 to the full Senate.
"Currently, the largest number of people sentenced to the Department of Correction facilities are charged with nonviolent drug and property crimes," said Sen. Brent Steele, a Bedford Republican who authored S.B. 561. "I believe we can make more efficient use of tax dollars by focusing prison time on those we're afraid of and not just those with whom we are angry."
Probation officials from across the state told the committee last week that they don't have the manpower to deal with what would likely be a larger workload under the legislation's reforms.
Steele said S.B. 561 includes funding incentives for those programs. "If counties treat lesser crimes at home, especially through probation initiatives," he said, "they'll get more funding from the DOC."
Another provision in S.B. 561 would allow people charged with nonviolent crimes or class D felonies -- the lowest category for felonies -- to have their records expunged if they haven't committed similar crimes in an eight-year period.
"This provision would allow Hoosiers who may have committed a crime when they were young or simply made a one-time mistake that's followed them their entire lives to have the opportunity to erase their records," Steele said. "There are people who have cleaned up their acts but still can't find jobs because they have deviant records."
Representatives of prosecutors and public defenders said Monday that S.B. 561 is a good bill, but they hope to continue working on its specifics as it moves through the legislature.
"I think there are some things that need to be tuned up around the edges, but I think overall it's a good bill," said Steve Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
Prosecutors had lobbied for the restricted credits available to violent offenders, and that provision was added to the bill during Monday's committee meeting.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said, "I don't think there was enough discussion about why those sentences ought to be increased. But, overall, it's still a good package that we support."
Staff writer Kevin Allen