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Good Behavior: Indiana Sentencing Explained

The Indiana Department of Corrections plans to reduce overcrowding in its prisons by no longer accepting people who have commited crimes carrying sentences of 90 days or less after July 1.

Changes to sentencing guidelines in the past few years will impact two high-profile Indiana cases: Purvi Patel and Daniel Messel.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor Ryan Scott explains how Indiana’s “credit for good behavior” system works.

“It’s standard for all prisoners in Indiana prisons,” Scott says. “And really all states have a system something like this.”

Scott says it’s an incentive for prisoners to avoid disciplinary infractions.

Recent Changes To Indiana Sentencing

Indiana used to offer day-for-day credit for most felonies, giving a day off of the sentence for each day served without discipline, meaning an inmate could serve just 50 percent of a sentence. This was more than most states offered.

In 2014 Indiana began offering most inmates convicted of felonies one day credit for every three days served without a disciplinary problem. This has resulted in most inmates serving at least 75 percent of their sentence. Lower-level felonies can still receive day-for-day credit.

“Indiana’s is still a greater discount than most states have,” Scott says. “In the federal system it’s a ten percent discount for good behavior.”

Do Judges Consider Good Behavior When Sentencing?

Scott says there is nothing in Indiana law that either requires judges to adjust sentences based on good time or prohibits them from doing so.

“So I suspect that different judges have different intuitions about how the existence of a good time system like that ought to affect the sentence or not,” he says.

Purvi Patel Sentence

In the Purvi Patel decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals chose to vacate a class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent and feticide, but instructs the trial court to resentence Patel for the lesser charge of class D felony neglect of a dependent.

A class D felony carries a sentence of six months to three years in prison. Patel has served roughly 17 months in prison since her arrest in 2013, since she was out on bail during her trial. She has received no disciplinary action during the time she’s been in prison, so she will receive the maximum day-for-day credit for good behavior, or 50 percent.

If the judge gives Patel the maximum sentence of three years, Patel will be released from prison by the end of September. However, if the judge assigns a lesser sentence, Patel will be released immediately.

Patel’s sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.

Daniel Messsel Sentence

A jury convicted Daniel Messel of the 2015 murder of IU student Hannah Wilson. The jury went on to establish Messel as an habitual offender, since he has previously been convicted of at least one other felony. That adds up to 20 years to the 45 to 65 years his murder conviction carries.

The sentencing changes in 2014 mean Messel can get only one day of time off his sentence for every three days he serves.

“Even after that’s discounted, he’s looking at 50 years unsuspendable actual served time,” Scott says. “For a defendant like him, who’s already 51 years old, that’s effectively a life sentence even if the judge chooses the most lenient sentence possible, which is unlikely given the horrible, brutal circumstances of that offense.”

A Brown County judge will sentence Messel at a hearing September 22.

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