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EDITORIAL

Chances look good for reform of criminal code

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 12:01 am

More punishment for the worst offenders, better chances for the rest.

Much-needed revision of the state's criminal code was one of the few goals set by Gov. Mitch Daniels that he did not achieve. Now, the prospects for the reform plan seem brighter.

House Bill 1006, sponsored by Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, and Greg Steurwald, R-Avon, is going to the full House after getting unanimous approval from the Ways and Means Committee.

Last time around, the revision was killed over concerns by prosecutors in the state that it was too soft on crime. This time, the reform has the backing of state associations of judges, prosecutors and public defenders. The chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court has even weighed in.

The major impetus for reform was the need to reduce prison overcrowding – if the state doesn't, a court might end up ordering it to. Sponsors of the bill say the changes would postpone the need for a new prison by at least 10 years.

But the revision would also make it more likely that the punishment fits the crime in Indiana – without getting soft on the worst offenders. Things would get tougher for them, in fact.

There would be six felony categories instead of four, for one thing, so more proportionality could be built into sentencing. And inmates would have to serve at least 75 percent of their sentences instead of being able to get out halfway through, as they can now.

At the other end of the spectrum, drug addicts and other low-level offenders could get into local community corrections programs instead of getting shipped off to prison. Treatment would be offered when appropriate, and there would be strict supervision.

If the bill is approved, this will be the first major revision of the criminal code since 1977. That's far too long not to have examined our criminal justice priorities. There may be flaws in this approach – the bill is more than 400 pages long – but it is a sincere and thorough effort to address the issue.

The proposal follows the recommendations of the bipartisan Criminal Code Evaluation Committee, which spent five years putting its report together.

It's hard to imagine a better goal for reform. Beginning criminals get a chance to turn around instead of learning more from hardened criminals. If they choose not to, there is a greater certainty they will serve more of their time. And in the process, money will be saved and prison expansion avoided.

Take a bow, Gov. Daniels, and others can take a lesson: Don't give up on something just because it doesn't go through the first time.