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A sentencing reform bill will best serve Hoosiers if it sentences fewer low-level offenders to state prisons and more to county-based alternative-sentencing programs such as Allen County’s Community Corrections, where participants help their communities by, among many other activities, picking up trash.

A shift on sentencing

Hoosier lawmakers can sometimes be frustratingly slow to adopt common sense, cost-effective measures to protect and improve the lives of citizens, and even the initial efforts often fall short. Prohibitions against smoking and open containers of alcohol are examples of laws that took years to pass and, even then, needed improvements to better serve the state.

So it is with efforts to reform the sentencing of Indiana criminals with a goal of giving those convicted of comparatively minor crimes a better chance of reforming while reserving prison for those convicted of more heinous and violent crimes.

Now, two years after the General Assembly shot down a reform package from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ administration, a new proposal cleared a House committee last week. It appears to have a much better chance of success.

Whether it marks significant progress in its current form is a matter of debate. One welcome goal of the 2011 proposal was to put more lower-level criminals in county-based alternative sentencing programs instead of state prison, reducing costs to taxpayers and helping keep criminals from becoming repeat offenders.

But Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, believes that as proposed the bill would have the opposite effect. “We think it will increase sentences across the board,” Landis said, and “undermines the goal” of reducing Indiana’s growing prison population.

Indeed, the bill would keep at least some criminals in prison longer, though many Hoosiers would argue that the bill does so appropriately in some cases. The proposal has a “truth in sentencing” component that would significantly reduce the amount of early-release credit that prisoners can earn by behaving in prison and earning college degrees. Most significantly, many criminals would have to serve at least three-fourths of their sentence, rather than half, before release – which seems appropriate for murder and other violent, high-level felonies but perhaps not for less-serious felonies.

The proposal also rightly increases the penalties for certain sex crimes, particularly those involving child victims.

Portions of the bill bring welcome proportionality to a number of crimes. Today, Indiana is the only state that makes all theft cases a felony regardless of the amount stolen. The proposal would make thefts of goods or cash of less than $750 a misdemeanor but increase the penalty for thefts totaling $50,000 to $100,000. It would also reduce the penalties for possession of marijuana and for smaller amounts of cocaine and certain other drugs.

Public defenders have long questioned laws that increase penalties for drug crimes that occur within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and other “protective zones,” noting that area can practically encompass entire communities. This proposal narrows the threshold to 500 feet for schools and parks and eliminates other protective zones, such as family housing complexes.

The proposal makes numerous other changes in Indiana code, including expanding the types of felonies – and their accompanying sentencing ranges – from four to six, so penalties can better align with the severity of crimes.

As for portions of the bill that would encourage more alternative sentencing, Allen County will probably be affected less than surrounding counties. Allen County already has a robust Community Corrections program that allows offenders to be placed on home detention with limits on where they can go, while some Hoosier counties lack such a program. To the extent that convicted criminals would be sentenced to county programs instead of state prisons, the bill must shift funding to counties to pay for increased expenses.

As proposed, the legal changes would take effect not July 1, as most laws do, but in 2014, allowing time for closer study and additional changes.

Though containing questions, omissions and imperfections, the bill has enough good elements that lawmakers should at least keep it moving while making improvements.