By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
In what one legislator likened to “busting rocks,” state lawmakers are pushing ahead with an effort to revamp Indiana’s criminal code by focusing on sex, drug and theft crimes.
The process, done through two legislative study committees this summer, is proving to be slow-going as differences emerge over how to treat many of the crimes that crowd court dockets and fill state prisons.
On Wednesday, during a three-hour session devoted to property crimes, one of those study committees voted to recommend what would be a major change in Indiana law: Setting a monetary threshold for what constitutes a crime of theft that could be charged as felony.
Indiana is the only state in the nation without such a threshold, according to Deborah Daniels, a former U.S. attorney who’s been researching state criminal codes for the study committees.
Members of the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission voted 7-6 to recommend a $750 threshold — meaning the item or items stolen during a theft would have to be worth at least that much for the offense to be charged as a Class D felony crime rather than a misdemeanor.
One big difference between the two: A Class D felony carries up to three years in a state prison, while the highest level misdemeanor carries up to a year in a county jail.
After much wrangling over the meaning and impact of legal language, the commission also voted on a range of theft-related recommendations. They included reducing forgery from a Class C down to a Class D felony and upping a theft charge from a misdemeanor to a felony if the item stolen was a gun or stolen during a state of disaster emergency, aimed at looters on a post-disaster rampage.
The commission also voted to raise a theft charge to a Class C felony, which carries up to eight years in prison, if a theft involved something worth $50,000 or more. Currently, the value has to be $100,000 or more to be charged as a Class C felony theft.
Commission members acknowledged they had some long hours of work ahead; on the agenda for their next meeting on Aug. 18 are Internet sex crimes, including online solicitation of children by sexual predators.
“I don’t know any other way than to just go through this, step by step,” said Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, who was a strong advocate of a sweeping sentencing reform bill that failed in the last legislative session. “It’s busting rocks, one at a time.”
Gov. Mitch Daniels has pledged to make criminal sentencing reform a priority in the next legislative session. A bill he backed that would have reduced the number of low-level offenders sent to prison failed after prosecutors raised a range of concerns.
Some of those same concerns emerged at Wednesday’s commission meeting. Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, a former prosecutor, voted against setting the $750 monetary threshold for felony theft and raised questions about changing other legal language that could diminish the discretion prosecutors currently have in charging crimes.
“I don’t see how that helps (crime) victims stay safer,” Head said.
Also moving forward in concert with the work done by the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission is a second study committee, the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, which is taking an in-depth look at sentencing for drug crimes. The committee was scheduled to meet today to take up the issue of decriminalizing marijuana or reducing penalties for its possession.
Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.