Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

December 17, 2011

Low-level offenders filling Indiana prisons

First in a three-day series

INDIANAPOLIS — After the Madison County judge looked at Bruce A. Wilson’s pre-sentence report, he made a decision, based in part, the judge said, on Wilson’s “lack of remorse.”

So Wilson, busted with two ounces of marijuana tied up in three bags, $3,900 in cash and no prior felony convictions, was sentenced to three years in the Indiana Department of Correction for something that would have earned him a citation and a fine in Ohio.

Unfair? Not according to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which upheld the sentence.

Thus, Wilson became a statistic, one of the growing numbers of low-level felons in Indiana’s prison system, which grew by 41 percent between 2000 and 2009, a period that saw an almost perfectly corresponding drop in violent crime. Individuals like Wilson, convicted and sentenced on a Class D felony charge — the least severe of Indiana’s four felony grades — are the reason for that increase.


Systemic change

stalls at Statehouse

Those numbers were the impetus behind a sweeping sentence reform bill pushed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels at the beginning of the 2011 legislative session. Concerned that rising prison costs were outpacing state revenues, Daniels saw reform as a way to curb some of $600 million spent operating Indiana prisons each year.

He pushed legislators to look for ways reduce the number of low-level felons going into state prisons and to expand and improve community corrections programs in the counties, programs designed to keep offenders like Wilson out of prison, considered by some to be a sort of academy for advancement in crime.

But the bill failed to gain traction with legislators wary of tampering with the status quo.

In announcing his priorities for the 2012 session that begins in January, Daniels left sentencing reform off the list, citing the lack of legislative will.

Some lawmakers believe that small pieces of the failed big bill can still be salvaged, but they’ve spent the past few months wrestling over how to get that done. Some are still not convinced of the basic premise, that there are people behind bars who don’t belong there.

“I don’t think we have any Jean Valjeans out there,” State Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, quipped as questions of harsh sentencing arose during a summer legislative study session he led.

But if there are no examples of Les Miserables’ fictional Valjean — sentenced to 10 years for stealing a loaf of bread — in Indiana’s prisons, there may be quite a few Bruce Wilsons.

Technically, the maximum sentence in Indiana for stealing a loaf of bread would be three years, as that is the maximum sentence for a Class D felony.

The fact that theft — no matter how small — is charged as a felony in Indiana was among the first topics raised this summer in the Criminal Code Commission that Bray chairs. Most members supported the idea of establishing graduated theft charges, and putting new limits on a prosecutor’s discretion to charge petty theft as a felony. But there weren’t enough votes to recommend it go into a bill for the 2012 session.

As the debate has evolved, the lack of sentencing statistics on low-level DOC prisoners — including the role played by judges and prosecutors — has become one clear area where the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the reform proponents agree, research and discussion is needed.

Where they’ve disagreed, sometimes vehemently, and sometimes simply because not much is quantitatively known on the subject, is on how much latitude judges and prosecutors should have on the fate of an offender like Wilson.

The comprehensive reform bill of state sentencing and criminal laws backed by Daniels last session died after heavy criticism from the county prosecutors’ council, which came out especially hard against the bill’s attempts to lower the weight threshold for a drug dealing charge.

Legislators backing the reforms, like state Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, spent months after the bill’s defeat looking for ways to break it into more palatable pieces. A bill he’s filed for the 2012 session would boost funding for probation and drug-treatment programs with the intent of reducing the number of low-level felons in the state prisons. “I’m pushing on because it’s the right thing to do,” Foley said.

In early December, Foley announced he won’t be running for re-election next year. So going into what will be his last legislative session, he’ll keep questioning why Indiana has more than 27,000 individuals incarcerated in state prisons.

“Our problems … I don’t know they’re being solved by delay. I think they’re being exacerbated by delay,” Foley said.

Reform supporter Larry Landis, who heads the Indiana Public Defenders Council agrees. “There are more prisoners coming into the system every year,” he said. “If we do nothing, that’s not going to stop.”

State officials want to reduce the costs associated with the Indiana Department of Correction. The problem, as seen by DOC officials and reform advocates is that the state’s prisons have become a revolving door for petty criminals.

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