Technically, a person could be sentenced to three years in prison in Indiana for stealing a pack of gum.

While officials, including judges, law enforcement and prosecutors, scoff at the idea of such a thing happening — at least to a first-time offender — there’s no doubt that at least 4,000 and possibly more than 6,000 Indiana Department of Correction inmates are serving time related to a Class D felony conviction.

And in Indiana, simple theft is chargeable as a D felony.

That’s just one of the dilemmas facing two summer legislative study committees, as state lawmakers attempt to tackle both sentencing reform and criminal code reform in time for the next legislative session.

They’re being lobbied by a number of special interests, among them the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association, the Indiana Department of Correction and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

The latest skirmish has formed over the question of whether Class D felons — those convicted on the lowest rung of the felony scale — should ever serve time in the DOC.

The sheriffs’ association has gotten Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers’ attention on that issue.

Last week, Rogers told the Howard County commissioners that state legislators are considering sending all of the D felons in the DOC back to the county where they were convicted, to serve out their time in the county jail.

Rogers said that decision would send more than 50 inmates back to Howard County, further crowding the Howard County jail.

“If you add those numbers to what we’re holding today, we’re back to the point we were before when we thought we’d removed the congestion from the funnel,” he said.

In July, Sentencing Reform Study Committee chairman and state Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, acknowledged the state would have to provide funding to the locals if such a step was taken.

But that’s not what’s being presented by the sheriffs’ association to the county sheriffs.

“It’s important to not fall in a trap with the sheriffs and mandated things like sending the D felons back to the general [county jail] population, because I think that would create budget problems and unsafe jails,” Indiana Sheriffs’ Association spokesman Steve Luce said.

“Where am I going to put another 54 people without another pod or two? I need another pod right now just to handle the increase in females,” said the Howard County jail commander, Capt. Harold Vincent. “I understand why the state is doing what they’re doing, but I don’t understand pressing that onto the local taxpayer.”

David Powell, spokesman for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said most first-time offenders charged with a Class D felony are eligible to have their charges reduced to a misdemeanor.

“Most first-time offenders are given alternative sentencing,” Powell said. “Almost always it’s a repeat offender when it’s a D felony situation, and even then, if it’s a non-violent crime, the court will look for alternatives [to state prison].”

State prison officials question why D felons are sent to the DOC in the first place.

By law, the sentencing range for a D felon is between six months and three years, with the advisory sentence being 1.5 years. A judge has discretion to lower the D felony charge to a misdemeanor unless the offender has already gotten that break, or that person had committed another felony less than three years earlier.

The judge also has no discretion if the charge is domestic battery as a D felony, or possession of child pornography.

State officials are in the midst of a huge study of D felony sentencing practices, premised on the concern that thousands in the state prison system are short-timers, serving less than a year.

That’s not long enough to be entered into any kind of rehabilitative program, so essentially the state is warehousing those offenders. That’s part of why state DOC officials want the D felony offenders to serve their time at the local level.

Despite two decades of jail expansions across Indiana, there are still jails in both small and large counties which simply can’t handle more inmates. That’s another reason why more and more D felons are being put into the DOC system.

But with around 5 percent of the state’s annual spending tied up in the prison system, state officials, led by Gov. Mitch Daniels, want to quit building more prisons and incarcerating more offenders.

The ultimate problem is money, Powell said.

“If the economy were booming, and the revenues were flowing, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he said.

© 2020 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.