Indiana Postpones Reform of Sentencing Guidelines

After a great deal of chatter, the Indiana General Assembly has decided it will not include in its agenda for 2012 a measure to reform Indiana’s dated sentencing guidelines.  (See Post-Tribune Article, “Sentencing Guidelines Overhaul to Take Another Year” 14 January 2012).  (See generally News and Tribune Article, “Daniels Urges Sentencing Reform 16 December 2010).  Apparently the $1.2 Billion that the State must spend on new prison construction isn’t persuasive enough that we are putting too many offenders behind bars.

Sentencing guidelines instruct a judge with a range of possible penalties for certain crimes.  In Indiana, crimes are broken down into A, B, C, and D Felonies, and A, B, and C Misdemeanors.  Currently, the basic sentencing guidelines for crimes committed in Indiana are as follows:

  • Class A Felony – between twenty (20) and fifty (50) years incarceration; up to $10,000.00 fine.  (Indiana may petition for the death penalty in murder cases involving Arson, Burglary, Kidnapping, Rape, Robbery, Carjacking, Criminal Gang Activity, or Dealing in Cocaine or a Narcotic drug, and under other limited circumstances.)
  • Class B Felony – between six (6) and twenty (20) years incarceration; up to $10,000.00 fine.
  • Class C Felony – between two (2) and eight (8) years incarceration; up to $10,000.00 fine.
  • Class D Felony – between six (6) months and (3) years incarceration; up to $10,000.00 fine.
  • Class A Misdemeanor – not more than one (1) year incarceration; up to $5,000.00 fine.
  • Class B Misdemeanor – not more than one hundred eighty (180) days incarceration; up to $1,000.00 fine.
  • Class C Misdemeanor – not more than sixty (60) days incarceration; up to $500.00 fine.

         I.C. 35-50-2, et. seq.; I.C. 35-50-3 et. seq.

Although there are many exceptions to the maximum penalties under certain aggravating circumstances, judges generally employ the above guidelines to determine the appropriate sentence for persons convicted of crimes.   In addition, the Statute encourages judges to use proscribed midpoints in the ranges as starting points in imposing sentences, but judges are not bound to do so.  Often times (especially with the serious felonies) a judge may be bound by a plea agreement reached between the criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor, if s/he accepts it.  In felony cases, the judge will normally take the plea under advisement until a pre-sentencing investigation (“PSI”) can be completed.  A PSI is a detailed report of the defendant’s criminal history, family background, and aggravating and mitigating circumstances involving the particular offense.  The judge will then use this in determining the appropriate sentence.  If the judge accepts the plea taken under advisement s/he is bound to impose the sentence as agreed.

In my opinion, reform to Indiana’s sentencing guidelines is much overdue.  Our prison population is growing at an alarming rate, and we are outpacing neighboring states in growing by a staggering forty percent (40%) in less than a decade.  This is largely because from the 1970′s to present, the Indiana General Assembly has taken much of the discretion out of the hands of judges, declaring instead by statute the minimum sentence for particular crimes.  Largely this is due to the contagious “tough on crime” persona adopted by many of our state legislators.

It is a shame that our legislators have imposed poor social policy based on merely the perception of potentially being labeled “weak on crime”.   Not surprisingly, prosecutors all over the state protested the measure, saying it was far too soft on crime and that it would put offenders back on the streets.  This is hardly the case, however.

The number of inmates housed who pose a significant threat to Hoosiers are in the slim minority among the prison population.  We really need to focus our state resources on protecting society from this dangerous minority, while other inmates could greatly benefit from community-based programs such as drug abuse and anger management treatment programs instead.  Incarceration is a large “hammer”, and unfortunately these statutes force judges to see very unique problems all as “nails”.   Not all criminal behavior has the same cause or effect, and there is a great danger in categorizing broad categories of crimes together.  In my experience, judges–although not infallible–are generally knowledgeable and fairly intelligent and wise in imposing sentences.  I think we need to trust them to do their jobs, and leave them discretion to determine which offenders should spend time behind bars, and how long they spend there.