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Legislators Could Change Sentencing For Low-Level Offenders

Female prisoners at the Rockville Correctional facility walk across the courtyard.

State legislators on the Criminal Code Evaluation Committee will decide next week what changes they will propose to Indiana’s criminal justice system during the next legislative session. One change legislators are considering would sentence people committing low-level felonies to probation—rather than prison.

Around half of people sentenced for felonies in the state have committed low-level offenses such as theft or sometimes simply violated their probation terms. Those statistics have state legislators and criminal justice officials reconsidering the way justice is served in Indiana.

“When you take non-violent low-level offenders and you put them at the DOC, it’s extremely expensive,” Bloomington Representative Matt Pierce, who serves on the state’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission says.

Pierce says one of the proposals the Commission will probably make this fall is to place low-level felons on county probation rather than sending them to prison.

“You keep them in the community, and you do intensive supervision through probation or community corrections probation,” he says. “And what you do with that person, if they have an underlying addiction, you get them in the drug court program, so now they’re going to have a judge working with them continually.”

Pierce says studies conducted in other states show probationers are more likely to beat addictions and stay out of prison. That is, as long as there are enough probation officers to run the programs.

Monroe County Chief Probation Officer Linda Brady says that could be a challenge for many counties. She says county officials will need more state funding for their probation departments.

“Drug court for just one example—it’s a very labor intensive program, and it also costs more money per offender, but it costs a lot less than it costs to put someone into jail or prison,” Brady says. “But it’s a change in mindset that we really need, as a system, and society, to invest in more preventative programming or early intervention than to build a new prison. We can make it work, but we can’t do it without resources.”

Brady says because Monroe County already has jail diversion programs that are linked to its probation department it is better prepared than many other counties to make those changes.

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