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.

Text Only
Local News
  • GN140424 Emma1 Pioneer Drama Troupe to perform 'Emma' Emma has a gift for getting people together — or so she thinks. Pride and matchmaking gone awry are key to Jane Austen’s “Emma,” which will be brought to theatrical life this weekend by the Pioneer Drama Troupe.

    April 24, 2014 2 Photos

  • Michigan Prisoner Escape Michigan murderer arraigned in prison escape that led to manhunt in Elkhart, LaGrange counties

    IONIA, Mich. — A convicted murderer who broke out of a western Michigan prison in February has been arraigned on escape, carjacking and kidnapping charges.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • GN140423 Wakarusa Musical 3 'A Kid's Life' portrays sudden techno loss WAKARUSA — The young people of our present day society don’t remember ever having lived their lives without some element of electronic gadgetry becoming involved. For them, it would be difficult to fathom the possibility of a world “off the grid.” So the fourth- and fifth-grade students of Wakarusa Elementary School will offer a comedic and chaotic interpretation of such a dilemma with their upcoming musical “A Kid’s Life.”

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • GN140423 stress relief 03 Furry pals help GC students with dog days of finals GOSHEN - Goshen College students took a break from preparing for final exams to hangout with some four-legged friends Monday afternoon.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • GN140423 FF spring play_3547 Fairfield students to present Oscar Wilde classic BENTON — Fairfield’s musicals and plays have recently left their status as an extracurricular activity and come under the wing of the Performing Arts Department and under the direction of Andrew Muth.

    April 23, 2014 3 Photos

  • Sheriff Brad Rogers_0657 Sheriff travels to Nev. ranch in fed dispute Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers has weighed in on a controversy surrounding a Nevada rancher, and visited the scene of the struggle.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • GN140209 snow storm 05 Elkhart, LaGrange counties denied FEMA aid GOSHEN — Elkhart and LaGrange counties were not among the 19 Indiana counties that had financial aid approved Tuesday by FEMA for a January winter storm.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Prep Roundup BASEBALL Falcons garner road win The Fairfield Falcons posted a 5-4 victory Tuesday evening at Rochester. Dustin Everage (three innings), Andrew Bobeck (three) and Austin Christner (one) pitched for the winners. Everage struck out three to earn the

    April 23, 2014

  • Akela.jpg SLIDESHOW: Pets of the Week Available cats and dogs at the Humane Society of Elkhart County. These loving animals are looking for permanent homes.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • GN0423 BC IN Common Core Indiana panel approves new school standards

    A panel of Indiana business and education leaders were met with boos and jeers from attendees after they voted overwhelmingly Monday to support new math and English standards set to replace the Common Core in classrooms this fall.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Poll

There has been discussion at West Goshen Elementary School to require mandatory student uniforms in the future. How do you feel about the prospect of mandatory student uniforms in a public school environment?

I think it’s an excellent idea that is way overdue
I think it’s a bad idea and would be restrictive for students and parents.
     View Results
AP Video
SKorea Ferry Toll Hits 156, Search Gets Tougher Video Shows Possible Syrian Gas Attack Cubs Superfans Celebrate Wrigley's 100th Raw: Cattle Truck Overturns in Texas Admirers Flock to Dole During Kansas Homecoming Raw: Erupting Volcanoes in Guatemala and Peru Alibaba IPO Could Be Largest Ever for Tech Firm FBI Joining Probe of Suburban NY 'Swatting' Call U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Raw: Violence Erupts in Rio Near Olympic Venue Raw: Deadly Bombing in Egypt Raw: What's Inside a Commercial Jet Wheel Well Raw: Obama Arrives in Japan for State Visit Raw: Anti-Obama Activists Fight Manila Police Motels Near Disney Fighting Homeless Problem Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye' S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers