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Panel backs changes to early-release rules

– People convicted of sex offenses would not be allowed to shorten their prison sentences by earning college degrees under a proposal supported Tuesday by an Indiana Senate committee.

The Senate’s Corrections and Criminal Law Committee voted 8-1 to advance the bill, proposed following complaints from victims’ families about the early release last year of a former swimming coach and former church pastor who both were convicted of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, cited the case of a former Indianapolis high school swim coach who was released after serving less than two years of an eight-year sentence for having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl he coached.

Merritt said that man and other convicted sex offenders have “gamed the system” to gain early release under current state law that allows inmates to earn up to two years of credit time for receiving a bachelor’s degree and one year of credit time for an associate degree. That is in addition to good-behavior time behind bars that can cut an inmate’s prison sentence in half.

“We’re trying to make a statement that a violent or a convicted sex offender should stay incarcerated a longer time,” Merritt said.

Merritt’s bill now goes for consideration to the Senate Appropriations Committee because it would increase the inmate cost for the Department of Correction by about $1 million a year.

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he agreed with Merritt’s aim of making sexual offenders serve more of their sentence time but worried that the bill might conflict with a larger package overhauling criminal sentencing laws that is now making its way through the Indiana House.

That proposal would reduce the maximum college education-time credit from the current four years to two years for all inmates and scale back the amount of good-behavior credit time that inmates convicted of the most serious crimes could receive.

Parents of some sexual misconduct victims testified before the committee Tuesday, saying they were surprised by how much time could be shaved off prison sentences for college degrees earned by those who already had similar degrees.

Merritt said his proposal wouldn’t prevent sex offenders from earning college degrees while in prison, just take away using that for early release.

“If you want to make a better life for yourself when you’re out of incarceration, you can still get the education,” he said.

The bill would still allow those convicted of rape, child molestation, child seduction and other sexual crimes to get early release time for earning a GED or completing rehabilitation programs.

Merritt said he disagreed with arguments that it was improper to block sex offenders from being able to earn release credits like other inmates.

“I believe those are heinous crimes and should be treated different,” he said.

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