News and Tribune

Clark County

June 10, 2010

Can you restate that sentence?

State prison officials push for sentencing reform

INDIANAPOLIS — There’s not much Indiana’s two major political parties agree on these days, but there is one area of consensus: The state can no longer afford to support its growing prison population.

Faced with dwindling revenues, near-capacity facilities, and a projected rise in inmates, state prison officials are counting on a bipartisan promise made months ago to solve their dilemma.

If carried out as pledged, it may lead to the rewriting of the state’s penal code and a reversal of decades of get-tough sentencing enhancements that have led to prison crowding.

“The issue is no longer whether we need to be hard on crime or soft on crime,” said Randy Koester, deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Correction. “Now it needs to be, ‘Are we smart on crime?’”

That’s the question that arose earlier this year when a national study showed the number of inmates in state prisons nationwide had dropped for the first time since 1972.

Not so in Indiana, where the prison population grew by more than 5 percent in 2009, the largest increase of any state in the nation. As Koester notes, it forced the question: “Are all the offenders we house so dangerous that they need to be kept in a state prison? Are there better alternatives?”

The study was conducted by the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project, a nonprofit organization that works with states to revise sentencing rules and develop cost-effective alternatives to prison.

Even before the study was released, leaders of all three branches of Indiana state government asked Pew Center researchers for help developing an “evidence-based, data-driven” approach to sentencing and corrections.

The invitation, signed by the governor, the attorney general, the chief justice, and leaders of both the House and the Senate, offered a series of promises in return for the Pew Center’s help.

Among other things, it pledged the creation of a bipartisan task force that would examine the state’s penal code and issue policy recommendations, including those on sentencing and corrections. That work may be undertaken by the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, established last year by the Indiana General Assembly.

The invitation also promised that any bipartisan bickering within the task force over policy recommendations would be done in private.

The Pew Center researchers were in Indiana a few weeks ago, conducting a site visit to determine whether they’ll grant the state’s request for help. As of late last week, a decision hadn’t been made.

State prison officials are hopeful and say the best outcome will result from decisions guided by a mandate for rehabilitation found in the Indiana Constitution. “It may sound maudlin these days,” said Koester, “but it helps to remember that our state’s penal system was founded not on vindictive justice, but on the concept of restoration.”

— Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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