Treatment key to easing prison overpopulation

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

There is a general agreement that our prisoners are overcrowded in part because we give too harsh penalties for some drug offenses and don’t quite know how to handle those with mental illness who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

But there is a right way and a wrong way to address the problem.

The Obama administration’s Justice Department is flirting with the wrong way, or at least a worrisome one. It’s simply releasing 6,000 inmates in one of the largest discharges in American history. In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced the penalties for many nonviolent drug crimes, which can be applied retroactively to many prisoners. That seems to be not very careful.

Indiana is trying something that might be a little more promising. Through its Recovery Works initiative, $30 million will be spent over the next two years for designated agencies that treat felony offenders for mental illness or drug addiction in lieu of their being incarcerated.

The Indiana Department of Correction estimates that more than 80 percent of its inmates need substance abuse treatment. The state changed its sentencing laws in recent years to keep low-level felony offenders, many who are sentenced for nonviolent drug crimes, out of state prison.

And a new state law also provides funding for psychiatrists and other mental health providers to treat criminal defendants with mental health needs. Expanded services include forensic treatment, medication management through home visits with probation officers, transitional housing assistance, supportive employment initiatives, case management, detox, community recovery support programs, and new crisis intervention training for law enforcement.

Indiana legislators have tried to address prison overcrowding. Some of the reforms they came up with might help — keeping more low-level offenders at the county level, for example — but could create other problems. Some of them might actually increase the prison population — such as making more offenders serve at least three-quarters of their time instead of just half.

Since legislators can’t get a handle on the number of prisoners, they should agree to creating more prison space. But they won’t do that, either.

Somebody has to take the problem seriously. It looks like someone is.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to [email protected].