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Sentencing options are the keys to alleviating overcrowded prisons

November 23, 2003

Our position is: State should relieve crowded prisons by building up community corrections and allowing judges more flexibility in sentencing.

In a six-year span, starting in fiscal year 1995, the state of Indiana increased its spending on prisons by a total of 71 percent. It was more than six times the rate of inflation during the same period. But it wasn't enough.

State officials acknowledged last week that crowding in Indiana's prisons is at the worst level in four decades. Prisons intended to hold 16,000 inmates now incarcerate nearly 23,000.

Safety, of both guards and inmates, is a concern. Drug treatment sessions and job training classes, keys to helping inmates lead productive lives once they are released, have been canceled because of crowded conditions at the Rockville and Putnamville prisons. And projections indicate that the problem will only get worse in coming years without changes in the way Indiana addresses both crime and punishment.

The state, facing an $800 million deficit, isn't in a position to build its way out of the problem. Although the New Castle and Miami prisons could potentially house another 2,300 inmates, it would take an additional $37.5 million to expand the operations.

The state also can't simply ignore the overcrowding. In 1992, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit because of conditions at the Westville maximum-security prison. The state settled the suit two years later, although a state health department report issued last week said that inmates at the prison are still subjected to filthy, unfit conditions.

As Marion County leaders can attest, federal judges tend to have a strong, negative reaction when inmates are subjected to overcrowded or unsanitary conditions. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker has ordered local officials either to keep the inmate population at the Marion County Jail under a court-mandated cap or pay daily fines.

While Indiana prison officials are under no such order yet, it's better for the state to act now than to risk costly adjustments later.

Two avenues provide the state a way out of the problem. The first involves greater reliance on community corrections, an approach favored by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman William Crawford, D-Indianapolis.

The second would allow judges more flexibility in sentencing convicted criminals.

There's general agreement that much of the increase in the inmate population has been fueled by mandatory sentencing requirements, especially those involving illegal narcotics.

Legislators are starting to question the wisdom of that approach. "It's time to look at the sentences because that is causing a lot of your prison buildup," Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Garton, R-Columbus, told The Star's Fred Kelly.

Would giving judges the ability to reduce sentences suddenly make Indiana soft on crime? Not necessarily. Judges would be able to tailor sentences to better fit the true nature of the crime. As Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, notes, a person can now end up with a 20-year prison sentence for possessing as little as 3 grams of cocaine.

With taxpayers now handing over almost $21,000 a year to house and feed each inmate, a mandatory 20-year sentence is an expensive proposition for everyone involved.

In any case, unshackling judges from having to hand down mandatory sentences would free them to do what they are elected to do -- make wise, carefully weighed decisions.

Diverting more inmates into community corrections is in the long run a less expensive alternative than continuing to pack convicts into ever-larger prisons. It's also an option that provides a better chance for rehabilitation, which, according to the state Constitution, is supposed to be a goal of the prison system.

Some inmates unquestionably need to be sent away for a long time. No is suggesting that rapists and murderers be released into the community early to save money. But thousands of inmates who are now taking up space in prisons for less serious offenses could be diverted into alternative sentencing programs.

And, as mental health advocates have long argued, prisons now serve as the largest mental hospitals in the state. Warehousing the mentally ill in prison doesn't in the long run save money, benefit society or provide help to inmates who desperately need it.

State legislators, starting in January, must get serious about finding alternatives to lengthy prison terms for nonviolent offenders. The state simply can't afford to keep throwing away the key.

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