Photo: Mike Cogh (flickr)
Independent analysts say the overhaul of Indiana’s criminal code will increase the prison population unless the law also pushes prosecutors and judges to direct more offenders into community corrections programs.
Indiana’s criminal code reform bill, passed last session and set to take effect next summer, reduces the penalties for some low-level, first-time offenses while toughening the sentences for high-level crimes.
One of its goals is to reduce the state’s prison population. But Applied Research Services analyst John Speir says that won’t’ happen because of another change requiring offenders to serve 75, instead of 50 percent of their sentence.
“Our model, when it says an increase in the population over current law, we are assuming there is no change in the suspended sentence, meaning we’re not suggesting we’re going to keep more people in the community,” he says.
Speir says that’s because his analysis assumes judges and prosecutors won’t change their sentencing habits unless they’re forced to.
For example, the maximum sentence for lowest level felonies under the current system is three years. Under the new system, it will be two and a half.
But Speir says if a judge typically hands down a two year sentence under the current system, that judge won’t necessarily hand down a lesser sentence, even with a lower maximum length. Allen County Superior Court Judge John Surbeck says the sentences he hands down are not guided by sentences he’s given out in the past but the process dictated in the state’s criminal code.
“I don’t focus on numbers but rather on the process and my experience is that’s what my lawyers do, the prosecutors that appear in front of me as well as the public defenders and defense lawyers that appear in front of me. That’s the custom, that’s the culture that we have,” Surbeck says.
A legislative panel will consider potential legislation next week that deals with sentencing guidelines in the criminal code reform package.