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Indiana Senate panel backs tougher marijuana penalties

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Thursday, March 28, 2013 - 6:38 pm

INDIANAPOLIS — The penalties for marijuana possession and dealing will be tougher than first proposed in a major overhaul of Indiana's criminal sentencing laws under changes approved Thursday by a state Senate committee.

The move to increase the felony and misdemeanor levels of the marijuana crimes, with longer possible prison sentences for those convicted, came after Republican Gov. Mike Pence questioned last week whether the plan was strict enough on low-level drug offenders.

Members of the Senate's Corrections and Criminal Law Committee also voted to advance the overall bill, which aims to direct more people convicted of low-level felonies to work release and other local programs rather than sending them to prison. It also would require those convicted of the most-serious crimes to spend more time in prison.

Changes made by the committee include moving possession of between about one-third of an ounce and 10 pounds of marijuana from the highest-level misdemeanor to the lowest-level felony, with a prison sentence between six months and 2.5 years. The bill originally required possession of more than 50 pounds of marijuana before becoming a felony punishable by one year to six years in prison, but the committee lowered that level to 10 pounds.

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said he was troubled by the bill allowing someone with up to 10 pounds of marijuana to face a misdemeanor charge.

"That's about a $50,000 street value," Powell said. "You know that's not for personal use."

The bill's provisions for various levels of crimes, from those such as attempted murder and rape to drug dealing and petty theft, were developed by a criminal code review commission over the past four years.

Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council, told the committee that the group disagreed with the bill being changed to go against the commission's work to set all crimes by degrees of seriousness.

Committee Chairman Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, drew laughs from other members and the audience when he referred to the governor by responding: "We have somebody on a different floor of this building that had a problem with it."

The committee voted 8-1 to approve the marijuana law changes, which put them closer to what is in current state law.

Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, voted against the changes, saying he thought they were only prompted by tough-on-crime posturing from Pence.

"I just think it was an unnecessary change and an artificial change just to appease the governor," Stoops said.

The committee voted down a proposal that would have scrapped the bill's provisions to require most felons to serve at least 75 percent of their sentences.

Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, proposed keeping the current system of allowing inmates to be released after serving 50 percent of their sentence if they earn good-time while behind bars. Glick, a former LaGrange County prosecutor, said she believed the 75 percent standard would weaken the incentive that inmates have to not cause trouble while in prison.

Bill sponsor Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, disagreed and said that retaining the 50 percent credit time would undermine work on gaining support from law-enforcement groups and cost support among legislators. Steuerwald said the change would give the public more certainty about the sentences that criminal will serve.

The bill, which the House approved last month, now advances to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review of its financial impact. Its provisions aren't to take effect until July 2014, and Powell and the prosecutors council had concerns about some crime levels that it would take to the code review commission this summer.

"Certainly there are things in it that we'd like to change, and I'm sure there are things that the public defenders want to change," Powell said. "It's a long way from being done."