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Study: Low-Level Felons Often Are Repeat Offenders

The finding could affect sentencing reform efforts in the Statehouse.

prison bars

Photo: Mike Cogh (flickr)

IU's Center for Criminal Justice Research finds a high rescidivist rate among low-level felons.

Most people imprisoned for low-level felonies have several prior convictions, according to a new study from the Center for Criminal Justice Research at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute. The finding could change the state legislature’s effort to reform criminal sentencing.

Governor Mitch Daniels tried to push through prison reform legislation in 2011 to reduce the number of people held in state prisons and limit the amount of money Indiana spends on inmates. The idea was that many people who are put in prison for low-level felonies such as theft would be better off in treatment or on probation.

But the new study from the Center for Criminal Justice Research shows people who commit those low-level felonies often have been convicted of other crimes. John von Arx is the project manager for the study. He says the data shows prison time isn’t being used for first-time offenders.

“What we’re beginning to pull together is the data that suggests that there looks as though there is a longer period of criminal behavior in terms of prior convictions than maybe what some people believed to be the case,” von Arx says.

State Representative Ralph Foley chairs the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission that will make a recommendation to the legislature based, in part, on the study. He says legislators will have to look closely at the data to find a way address public safety needs within the constraints of the state budget.

“When you put people inside the walls of the state prison,” Foley says. “You’re choosing the most expensive alternative in criminal justice, but that doesn’t mean it’s not warranted.”

The final version of the study will be released Thursday when it is presented to the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission.

Gretchen Frazee

Gretchen Frazee is a reporter/producer for WFIU and WTIU news. Prior to her current role, Frazee worked as the associate online content coordinator for WFIU/WTIU. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studied multimedia journalism and anthropology. You can follow her on Twitter @gretchenfrazee.

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