State legislators need to make a top-to-bottom reform of Indiana’s criminal-sentencing system a high priority when the next session of the General Assembly convenes in January. A plan supported by Gov. Mitch Daniels after consultations with think tanks and criminal-justice experts was introduced last session, but, in a rare loss for him, it crashed and burned.
At the top of the system is capital punishment. Should Indiana remain one of the 33 states still using the death penalty as the ultimate punishment? If so, for what crimes should it be used?
At the bottom are the relatively harsh sentences given for relatively minor crimes (mostly involving drug possession) that are filling our prisons beyond their capacity, risking a court order that would require more prison space or partially emptying the cells we have now.
The death penalty is being sought in fewer and fewer cases as time goes on, mostly because they have become so expensive. According to the Legislative Service Agency, the average death penalty case costs $450,000 – beyond a lot of county prosecutors’ budget capabilities – while a life-without-parole case costs about $45,000. In the 1990s, prosecutors went for the death penalty about seven times a year. Now it’s fewer than two. In the meantime, public support for capital punishment has dropped from over 80 percent to about 60 percent.
Obviously a punishment so seldom used cannot be a deterrent, and it’s fair to wonder if it’s even useful as a statement against evil. Would life without parole be a better option? If we keep the death penalty, could the state be persuaded to help defray the costs for counties?
Getting most of the attention at the bottom of the system will be whether penalties for marijuana should be reduced – not, it should be stressed, removed, as two other states did this year. Some legislators have said they might favor reducing a first possession charge from a misdemeanor to a citation and a second possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.
But there are many more issues involved. The Daniels bill was big on using community service and other alternative sentencing for a variety of crimes as a way to make the prisons less crowded and save a substantial amount of money in the process.
That bill failed, mostly because county prosecutors objected to it as soft on crime. It really wasn’t, so a better job of consulting with the prosecutors should be done. The state’s criminal code hasn’t had a comprehensive overhaul since 1977, and the world is a very different place now.