Under current laws, an 18- or 19-year-old arrested for a second time for possessing a small amount of marijuana would face up to three years in prison and the lifelong stigma of being a convicted felon, but state lawmakers are looking at whether the punishment outweighs the crime.
Legislators are considering proposals to reduce penalties for the possession of marijuana, including by making some offenses misdemeanors and by writing tickets instead of making arrests.
Local lawmakers say they wouldn’t support making the crime a ticketable offense, but they likely would consider lessening some of the penalties, especially if the change would help reduce
overcrowding in prisons and courts. They said the goal of the penalties for marijuana offenses should be to get people off drugs and rehabilitate them into productive members of society.
More than 160 people faced criminal charges for possessing marijuana in Johnson County last year, and 136 of those were misdemeanors, according to the prosecutor’s office.
A proposal in the Statehouse would lessen most marijuana offenses to misdemeanors, meaning the offender would not face prison time.
State Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, is proposing an overhaul of sentencing guidelines that’s aimed at making punishments more proportionate to crimes and that would reduce most marijuana possession charges to misdemeanors, regardless of the amount possessed or number of offenses.
Local lawmakers said they would support or at least consider the proposal, which is the product of a commission that the legislature appointed to revamp the state’s criminal laws at the urging of former Gov. Mitch Daniels. Prosecutors, public defenders and judges all contributed to the proposed overhaul, which has been in the works for the past few years.
The legislation is partly intended to prevent overcrowding in prisons and reserve limited prison space for serious violent offenders, State Rep. David Frizzell said.
Frizzell said he would oppose decriminalization of marijuana because he wouldn’t want to encourage more impaired driving but would consider the proposed overhaul of sentencing guidelines.
State lawmakers have been looking at ways to reduce prison costs and lessen the burden on taxpayers, State Rep. Woody Burton said.
He said that the revamped criminal code could achieve that goal, but that he’d need to study it more.
“I don’t believe in decriminalizing (marijuana) because it’s harmful to the body and the brain,” Burton said. “But I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to lessening the penalty.”
State Rep. John Price said he understands that prison overcrowding is a problem but would hate to be lenient on drugs, because they can lead to thefts and other crimes.
He said he couldn’t form an opinion until he had a chance to review the proposal.
Under current state law, having 30 grams or less of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, if it’s a first offense. A second offense or possession of more than 30 grams is a Class D felony that carries a sentence of six months to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Steele’s proposal would eliminate felony charges and prison time for those convicted of possessing marijuana.
Instead, they would face misdemeanor charges that could result in time in the county jail or in work release or on home detention, probation and drug and alcohol counseling.
State lawmakers need to look at penalties other than incarceration for some nonviolent offenders, State Sen. Greg Walker said.
They need to take pressure off the criminal justice system so that taxpayers don’t get burdened with the cost of building new prisons and courts, he said.
“For possession of amounts for personal use, the focus should be on diverting resources used for incarceration to drug rehabilitation and alternative sentencing,” he said. “The drug enforcement focus should be on the big players and not burden taxpayers by going after small usage. To some extent, that’s already what’s going on, and this is just the dog wagging the tail.”
Under the current system, people who commit first-time marijuana offenses typically get counseling through drug treatment programs and often go through a diversion program where they do 80 hours of community service in lieu of jail time, Johnson County Superior Court 2 Judge Lance Hamner said.
Any time in jail or prison they get for a repeat offense is intended as a wake-up call to get them to reform themselves, so they can be productive members of society, he said.
Franklin attorney Carrie Miles, who often works as a public defender, said that felony charges for marijuana possession can be too harsh at times.
“A felony can impact a lot of areas of someone’s life,” she said. “In the greater scheme of things, smoking marijuana may not be healthy, but it doesn’t have the negative impact of other types of drugs. People who are smoking marijuana are not beating their girlfriend or wife. They’re not going out stealing or robbing a bank.”
Such crimes typically are committed by people who are addicted to drugs like methamphetamine, heroin or prescription pills, Miles said.
She said that marijuana users shouldn’t be punished the same as people abusing harder drugs.
The offense of self-medicating with illegal drugs should be treated differently in the courts than more serious crimes that involve stealing or hurting other people, Indiana Public Defender Council executive director Larry Landis said.
Prisons should be viewed as scarce resources based upon need, not a first resort, Landis said. They should be reserved for people who steal, break and enter and commit sex offenses, not who commit minor drug possession offenses, he said.
Minor offenders who go to prison will have trouble finding work later and frequently turn to more serious crime, Landis said.
“If you over-punish minor offenders, you make them worse and more prone to recidivism,” he said. “If you take somebody who’s just doing minor things like smoking marijuana and put them in with real criminals, they have the worst possible role models you can imagine. You can’t dehumanize them and put them in a very destructive environment and not somehow imagine it would have a negative impact.”