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Prosecutors’ Attacks on Criminal Code Revisions Can Amount to Fear-Mongering

With less than two weeks until the new Indiana Criminal Code takes effect, several prosecutors have been on a public relations blitz, continuing to argue that the new laws will be catastrophic for ordinary people, and cause ruthless criminals to be housed in your backyard. This is, I suspect, part of an early attempt to lay the groundwork for lobbying the General Assembly in the next term to repeal some provisions in the unlikely event that something terrible DOES happen as a result of the new laws.

Of particular interest to me were statements made by Rush County Prosecutor Phil Caviness in the June 17th edition of the Rushville Republican, the local newspaper. Prosecutor Caviness expressed his concern that theft, which had previously been charged as a felony offense whether the stolen item was a $1.00 candy bar or a $1,000.00 diamond, now can only be charged as a felony if the amount of the property stolen has a fair market value of over $750, or is a handgun, or if the defendant has a previous theft conviction on their record. Prosecutor Caviness is convinced that Rush County may now be awash in thieves because of the reduction in penalty from felony to misdemeanor. “The likelihood of theft occurring could increase because penalties have been reduced,” Caviness said.
I’m going to do an unusual thing, here, and go on record by stating that this is absolute nonsense. First of all, people who are disinclined to commit theft in the first place are not going to suddenly decide to embark on a life of crime just because the penalties have been reduced. Have you ever met anyone who thinks like that? Second, the largest category of theft in Indiana can be classified as shoplifting offenses (employee theft offenses are a close second). Most shoplifters are usually either juveniles or in their early twenties, and are making extremely poor decisions at the time they slip merchandise into their pockets. They already weren’t aware that the offense they were committing was a felony, and it’s pretty unlikely that this knowledge would have affected their thinking in any appreciable way.
This is the major problem that I have with the “tough on crime” mentality. The people who are committing criminal offenses have no idea what the penalties are. If you want to argue that tough sentences reduce the likelihood that people will commit crimes (as Prosecutor Caviness seems to be arguing), perhaps there should be some sort of effort to TELL people what these penalties might be. A few years back I spoke at a high school class of at-risk teenagers, and one of the things that I discussed with them was the various penalties for drugs and other common offenses. They had no idea that the penalties were so severe, and these are the people that were the most likely to be future defendants. Other than patting ourselves on the back for taking away “dangerous” criminals, what value have we added to society by insisting on harsh sentences that we hope will deter people from committing crimes when the very people we’re supposed to be targeting know nothing about these penalties?
You and your families will be fine. Judges are still going to send actual bad guys to prison, where they will still be spending about the same amount of time behind bars. Even though the length of the sentence might have been reduced, the amount of time that the defendant has to serve has been increased from 50% to 75% of the sentence because of changes in how credit is calculated. Use your common sense, and resist fear-mongering.
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