MARTINSVILLE – “Round and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows” is a line from the “Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour.”  

Kris Kristofferson sings a mighty fine song about not knowing where she stops. Sometimes not knowing where it stops is OK. But for law and policy, not so much! Our Spidey Sense should be tingling as the Indiana General Assembly works on its second-half pass. Other than knowing sine die will happen, who knows what we will have when the lawmakers stop? We do not know what the final version of a bill will be. Which of the shiny object bills will go to the governor? What will the consequences be if those bills are signed into law?

“Shiny object” is a label for a bill that seems to accomplish something that sounds good to the public but either does nothing, costs more than it’s worth, or is detrimental in some way no one considered. For example, Senate Bill 36 is a shiny object bill that passed with a vote of 40 yeas and 9 nays to create an Indiana felony registry.  

How can anyone expect a legislator to vote against something that voters believe will “protect” them from felons? The appearance of doing something against crime gives shine to the bill, but the public does not know the extent of the information already available from Indiana courts’ case management system, Odyssey. Never mind the fact that Odyssey already provides more detailed information than the proposed registry will.

I disagree with the recent letter to the editor of the Indianapolis Star that alleged “the intent of Head’s registry is to weaponize felony records in the service of public shaming.” A more likely and more fair assumption is that Sen. Randy Head was asked to carry the bill and he was acting in “good guy” mode.   

I really do not believe the thought of weaponizing felony records would even occur to most people, politicians or otherwise. Indiana legislators (with maybe a couple of exceptions) are not nefarious folk, plotting against the interests of Hoosier voters. The ones I know and talk to are hardworking and sincere about doing good for the rest of us.

The House could do better to understand who pleads guilty to felonies these days and why those pleas are entered before setting up a new shiny object. Felony pleas are not just entered from robbers, murders, rapists, and bad actors.  

In Indiana, for someone with an alcohol or drug abuse problem or a mental illness, accepting a guilty plea may be their only path to access treatment services. Failure to examine the unintended consequences of the registry could be exacerbated by the passage of another shiny object bill that is seemingly unrelated.  House Bill 1615 amends Indiana penalty for animal abuse from a Class A misdemeanor to a Level 6 felony (I.C. 35-46-3-12). 

If both bills become law, it is likely that guilty pleas to felonies by people suffering from the mental illness of hoarding (Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) will increase. Cruelty to people with disabilities is not acceptable, and stigmatizing those defendants with mental illness by listing them on a felony registry is not innocuous.    

Do not misunderstand this comment. I am not in favor of animal abuse. I would never put my dog in a pet purse where it cannot freely move its limbs. Nor do I think a felony registry should prey on the mentally ill. Anecdotally, I know that many of the 500 or so animal abuse and neglect cases that are filed in Indiana each year involve hoarding. 

A felony registry is a poor use of taxpayer funded resources. If SB36 is intended for employers to use as a subterfuge to refuse to hire former offenders, it makes a joke of the “ban the box” Senate Bill 312 and the executive order signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2017. Actually, this whole discussion leads to questions beyond my allotted word count.  

Indiana needs a good study of mental illness and the justice system. Many of the published studies that I have reviewed were based on a funding agenda that impeded their usefulness. Those studies are not valid to inform effective legislation and policy for the justice system. So, we stumble from shiny object law to shiny object policy. The real people who are trying to live in this justice system fantasy land are set up for failure. Throwing money at the justice system problems is foolhardy because there will never be enough money without a more informed approach to the systems. The lack of understanding of the role of mental illness and drug abuse in the justice system costs us all, big time. The combined effect of SB8 and HB1615, although seemingly innocuous, would bring unintended cruelty toward vulnerable populations of the mentally ill and drug and alcohol dependent.  This surely does not reflect the kindheartedness of Hoosiers. 

Simply ditching the felony registry and  HB1615’s felony penalties would provide not only a kinder and better use of resources but lend integrity to the “ban the box” policy promoted by Gov. Holcomb. 

Chezem is a former Indiana Appellite Court judge and practices law in Martinsville. She writes on legal and agriculture issues for HPI.