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State report looks at 'smarter' prison sentences

January 05, 2011
Indiana is a state that has a long history of being tough on crime. State legislators have always jumped at a chance to criminalize more conduct and support longer prison sentences. But Gov. Mitch Daniels, prison officials and judicial advocates have begun pushing a new approach, not necessarily softer, but smarter sentences for the state's non-violent offenders.

The Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments spent several months studying Indiana's sentencing guidelines and prison population and made recommendations that were endorsed recently by Daniels.

According to a press release from the governor's office, this sentencing policy review is the first in the state in more than 30 years and will improve public safety and security for Hoosiers by concentrating Department of Corrections resources on the state's most violent criminals and will take a new and smarter approach to those who commit lesser offenses.

"Every significant aspect of law enforcement and criminal justice has been brought together in this project," Daniels said in the press release. "We have hoped for a package of changes that will bring more certain and firm punishments to the worse offenders in Indiana, more sensible, smarter incarceration for those who pose much less of a danger to Hoosiers and, as a byproduct of that, grace to taxpayers in the form of lower costs in the years ahead. I am thrilled to say that this group has brought about such a product, and I am happy to pass it on to the General Assembly with my strongest endorsement."

The governor also announced that the state has reached an agreement with the GEO Group Inc. to build a 512-bed high security annex to the New Castle Correctional Facility. GEO will finance and operate the facility for maximum security prisoners contiguous to the existing prison.

The review, sought by Daniels, Chief Justice Randall Shepard, Attorney General Greg Zoeller and legislative leaders, found that Indiana's prison population grew by more than 40 percent in the last 10 years — three times faster than any neighboring state — while the state's crime rate declined only slightly. The prison population grew primarily because more property and drug offenders were sentenced to prison.

According to the study, Indiana sentencing differs substantially from other states and it pointed out policies that, officials say, make little sense. For instance:

•The sentence for selling three grams of cocaine is the same as selling 3,000 grams.

•The average sentence for sexual assault is about five years. The average sentence for selling drugs is eight years.

•Stealing a $5 DVD is considered felony theft, the same as stealing a $5,000 ring.

The study also suggests that Indiana adopt a graduated sentencing structure that would establish a threshold for a felony offense such as making theft of an item worth less than $750 a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The study also looks at the need for rehabilitation and for better, smarter supervision of convicts who have left prison. Too often, according to the report, probation, parole and community corrections departments overlap, don't communicate and don't coordinate.

"On the theft side, I think everyone agrees this makes a lot of sense," said Crawford County Circuit Judge Lynn Lopp. "There's a difference when there is a theft of something worth $5 and something worth $500. This is sure to lessen the impact on the system by reducing sentences. But the biggest impact will be on drugs. Now, we have a system where three grams of cocaine — and that's about the same amount that is in one of those small packages of sugar or sweetener — is a Class A felony. It seems like that's such a small amount for such long sentences. Maybe this will put more discretion back in the courts. There has to be a point when the human part of judges come into play.

"Judges know the people, especially those in rural communities. You know their history, their past, their family situation and the possibility of rehabilitation. You have to look at what and who you know."

The report, which was released Dec. 16, has included three proposed categories of policy changes:

•Improve proportionality in sentencing and ensure prison space for the worse offenders by creating a more precise set of drug and theft sentencing laws and providing judges with more sentencing options for individuals who commit the least serious felony offenses.

•Strengthen community supervision by focusing resources on high-risk offenders and creating incentives for supervision agencies to coordinate better with one another.

•Reduce recidivism and bolster public safety by increasing access to community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment and enabling probation officers to respond with more effective, swift and certain sanctions.

According to the study, the new changes would allow the state to avoid spending $1.2 billion in prison costs, including $630 million in construction costs for a new prison facility and $571 million in operating costs associated with the state's prison population. The plan includes an additional $37.6 million in savings from food, medical and other expenses that vary because of the size of the prison population.

The recommendations also require a reinvestment of $27 million during the next six years to strengthen probation, provide incentive funding for counties to improve outcomes for people on probation and parole and ensure greater access to behavioral health treatment for those on supervision.

An editorial in The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette summed up the new proposals by stating that "For anyone who believes this approach is too soft on crime, consider this point: One result of changing the sentencing and supervision structure is that prisons, parole and probation officers can then focus on the worst offenders. It makes no sense that an estimated 71 percent of the state's prisoners are being held for non-violent offenses."

Lopp said that, at least for him, it will be a wait-and-see situation. Once the policy is out of committee and on the way to being implemented, he will be more informed on the particulars of the changes.

"This war on drugs dates back to the Nixon days," Lopp said. "It's been a 40-year war. Of course, the legislation tells us what is legal or not, but it's a fine balancing act. And the money is not always spent the best way.

"There are many community programs and other options where funding could be used better. Prisons and guards cost a lot of money. And people need to sit in a courtroom and see those who are impacted by these laws. Everyone has a story. Everyone is a father, a son, a mother or a daughter. These are people."

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