INDIANAPOLIS – INDIANAPOLIS -- The House Ways and Means Committee on Monday unanimously approved a bill overhauling the state’s criminal code, with some slight amendments.
The goal of House Bill 1006 is to make punishment more proportional to the crime, make the most serious offenders serve longer sentences and divert drug addicts and low-level offenders from state prisons to local treatment and supervision programs to reduce recidivism.
The bill increases the number of felony levels from the current four to six and spells out new rules for how prisoners could earn “credit time” for early release.
All felons would have to serve 75 percent of their sentences. Under current law “good time credit” automatically cuts sentences in half and then educational credit can reduce that further.
Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, initially offered an amendment to reduce this percentage out of concern that it might increase the state prison population in future years.
Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, said the bill’s parts all work together, noting the 75 percent requirement needs to be considered along with judges receiving more discretion to suspend sentences altogether for low-level crimes and the overall rearrangement of the crimes and possible length of sentence.
He said under current law the Indiana Department of Correction expects to have to build a new prison in 2019. The estimate with these changes is 2025.
Brown withdrew his amendment, but the committee did restore the ability of an offender to earn back credit time that has been taken away because of bad behavior.
The DOC was concerned about not having that leverage to encourage good conduct.
The bill also lowers some drug penalties, including reducing the size of the “drug-free zones” around schools. And it recalibrates theft charges to allow more misdemeanor charges.
The legislation now moves to the full House.
School voucher expansion curbed
Separately Monday, Republican lawmakers scaled back a proposal that could have opened the state’s private school voucher system to thousands of more students.
Changes approved by the Ways and Means Committee would allow kindergartners and some other students to be immediately eligible for the program if their families meet income limits.
But the committee removed a provision that would have waived the requirement for current private school students to spend at least one year in public schools before seeking a voucher.
The state budget proposal from House Republicans includes increased funding for what is already the country’s largest voucher program by about two-thirds to $63 million over the next two years.
Budget-writers decided that opening up the voucher program to non-public school students would be too great an extra cost, although how much is uncertain.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brown said the broader eligibility provision was estimated to cost between $17 million and $40 million a year, while a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency on a similar proposal last year found the annual cost could reach $115 million.
Brown said allowing children entering kindergarten to be eligible for the vouchers would have a much smaller budget effect and that his changes weren’t a move against opening the program to more students.
“Right now, the decisions were made on how it fits in our overall (budget) puzzle,” Brown said.
The committee voted 14-7, largely along party lines, to send the bill to the full Republican-controlled House for consideration.
House education committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, sponsored the broader expansion but said he agreed with the committee’s changes.
“Making kindergarten the starting point is what we really wanted,” he said.
The House Republican budget proposal forecasts spending for the voucher program to grow over the next two years from the current $37 million a year to $63 million annually.
That projects the number of students in the voucher program going from about 9,100 this year to 15,000 in the 2014-15 school year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.