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Friday, December 27, 2013

Ind. Law - SBT editorial on sentencing reform

Here are quotes from the South Bend Tribune's editorial last Sunday, headed "Seeking a good verdict on sentencing reform."

Last year when the General Assembly passed Indiana's first criminal sentencing reform in more than three decades, lawmakers delayed its implementation to better gauge the impact on local communities and the state's prison system.

The first of two independent studies aimed at answering the remaining questions was released this month. Georgia-based Applied Research Services concluded that the law's new mandate that inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences, as opposed to the half or less currently required, would likely add to the rising tide in the prison population. * * *

A second study, being performed by an Indiana University criminal-justice researcher, is looking at the recidivism outcomes and costs associated with assistance for offenders diverted from the Department of Correction back to their local communities. * * *

State Sen. Michael Young, chairman of the state's Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, recently said he expects lawmakers in the upcoming General Assembly will introduce bills to alter several of the reform's provisions, including the suspended sentence elements.

Let's hope legislators preserve the worthy goal of reserving prison for the most serious offenders, providing more effective rehabilitation and ensuring that punishment better fits offenders' crimes altogether.

State Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, who authored last session's reform bill, remains optimistic both that reducing the prison population can be accomplished and that local units will get the resources they need to tailor rehabilitative efforts to their own communities.

The General Assembly, however, may have put the cart before the horse on this issue, says St. Joseph County Sheriff Mike Grzegorek.

He largely agrees with the philosophy of serving more low-level offenders in the community. But, he says, currently, the substance abuse, mental health and educational rehabilitation to do the job aren't in place. Any significant number of prisoners returned to South Bend now would overwhelm authorities' ability to serve them.

The debate has been enough to open the door to suggestions of all sorts of revision. For example, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorney's Council has raised concerns that the law's range for drug sentences is too low and that it gives judges too much discretion in suspending sentences. But, police and prosecutors will always err on the side of keeping offenders locked up and legislators shouldn't let that derail reforms, as happened in 2011.

There's a lot of science behind good criminal justice policy and lawmakers must keep that the focus.

Remember how we got here: Indiana lawmakers in their "get-tough" spree of the '90s, passing law after law that defined new crimes and increased penalties for crimes already in the books. The result is a $700 million-a-year prison operation that's made very little improvement in the crime rate.

Even if the DOC simply keeps going the way it has, experts say, Indiana will soon need to invest another $1.2 billion in prison building. The state can't afford this kind of investment with the promise of so little return.

Criminal sentencing reform may be far more challenging than the General Assembly concluded last session, but legislators need to find the means to go forward.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 27, 2013 01:47 PM
Posted to Indiana Law