Time to rethink state criminal code reform

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

When the state enacted massive criminal code reforms between 2013 and 2015, it had three goals: to reduce prison overcrowding, which was becoming a serious problem; to save money; and to have more low-level offenders handled with community corrections solutions like work release, probation and addiction treatment.

According to a Department of Correction report presented recently to the General Assembly’s Interim Study Committee on Corrections and the Criminal Code, it now appears that only one of those goals has been met. It might be time for the General Assembly to do some rethinking of the issue.

The only goal met, says the DOC report, is that new state prison inmates declined from nearly 650 in 2014 to more than 120 last year.

But that hasn’t resulted in much cost savings or in additional prisoners in community corrections programs. Most of the low-level inmates simply end up in county jails.

The study found that having individuals convicted of Level 6 felonies — generally less serious property crimes — serve their sentences of typically six or so months at county jails, instead of state prisons, saved $11.28 million.

However, most of that savings ($9.4 million) was eaten up by a requirement that the state DOC pay county sheriffs $35 per day to jail Level 6 felons — about four times more than the state spends to feed, clothe and maintain a prisoner’s health.

Still, DOC was able to close the Henryville Correctional Facility in southeastern Indiana and reduce spending by $2.48 million. It is fair to ask, as committee Chairman Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, has, why remaining prisoners haven’t been consolidated so more facilities can be closed. That would save on salaries for guards and support personnel and fixed costs like utilities.

It is also fair to remind legislators that they complain frequently and bitterly about the federal government dumping its problems on them, so it is more than a little unseemly for them to dump state problems on counties. Many county jails in Indiana already are stuffed to the breaking point, and sheriffs’ staffs are having to cope with other problems, too, like the overwhelming number of jail inmates suffering with mental illness.

The committee will meet one other time before deciding whether to recommend major changes, which it certainly should. Acquiescing to constituents’ wishes, legislators have spent years getting tough on crime. They have yet to show a willingness to spend what it takes to cope with the resulting increase in prison population.

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