- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Opponents of a bill that calls for mandating tougher sentences for some convicted drug dealers said Tuesday it’s too early to change Indiana’s criminal code since a major overhaul took effect only two years ago.

The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee heard arguments from both critics and supporters of the House bill. The committee did not vote on the measure.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, an Avon Republican, said his bill would reinforce a minimum 10-year sentence for dealers of illegal drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine that bring Level 2 felony charges. Current law allows those drug offenders to leave prison after serving 75 percent of their sentences with good behavior.

The criminal law overhaul that went into effect in 2014 promoted sending less people to prison by setting alternative punishments such as work release and addiction treatment for low-level offenders.

“This is a supply and demand issue,” David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said at the hearing in support of the bill. “If you’re in prison, it’s a little harder to deal drugs.”

According to his agency, 1,518 Level 2 drug-dealing cases are currently on file in 86 of Indiana’s 92 counties. He said the offenses that lead to these cases are on the decline. The other six counties do not report their filings to the IPAC.

Each Level 2 case brings its own circumstances. Indiana Judges Association president Mary Willis said those are best gauged by the presiding judge. In arguing against the bill, she said it would dissolve a judge’s authority to weigh a case.

Steuerwald said the bill’s purpose was to keep the worst drug offenders off the street, since a Level 2 felony is the highest charge for a drug-dealing crimes.

Still, keeping those offenders imprisoned comes at a cost to taxpayers. According to the bill’s fiscal note, housing adult offenders costs an average of more than $20,000 per offender per year. Housing juvenile offenders costs nearly $89,000 per offender per year.

John Hill, deputy chief of staff for public safety for Gov. Mike Pence, said implementing the bill would be costly. He asked the Senate committee to take into account the $30 million the state set aside last year to bolster local mental health and addiction treatment programs.

“I would ask that you consider that,” Hill said. “We’re very open to compromise language.”

Sen. Brent Steele, a Republican from Bedford, said he thought the mental health and addiction treatment funding would be given more time to work before officials looked at sentencing policy.

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the decline in Level 2 drug-dealing offenses is a clear sign that current approaches are starting to work.

“No data has been presented to justify a reverse of the course of the direction that you chose,” Landis told the legislative panel. “I say stay the course.”

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Follow Aric Chokey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aric_chokey

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