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January 15, 2014


Recent editorials published in Indiana newspapers. Distributed by The Associated Press.

No-win proposition with marriage amendment

Social engineering can be a messy business, as Republicans in the Indiana Legislature are discovering.

On Monday, a hearing will be conducted on a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Or rather, it bans same-sex marriage.

Momentum against HJR3, the amendment banning gay marriage, has been building. The state’s leading (and high-tech) industries, Cummins Inc. and Eli Lilly and Co., have come out against it, plus most of the state’s universities and the mayors of major cities. That includes Republicans and Democrats.

The amendment has become almost an embarrassment for the state and the Republican Party, as well it should. It’s also spurred much confusion. How else to explain why Republicans introduced a “companion” bill to the amendment, HB1153, that states the amendment is not intended to deny employer health benefits to same-sex couples or circumvent local ordinances that forbid discrimination.

Huh? Any fifth-grader knows that legislative bodies enact laws and the courts interpret them. HB1153 is an attempt to usurp the power of the courts by defining what the amendment really means.

The Republicans want it both ways in this marriage business. They want to dictate their own version of what they believe is morally right, but also appear to cater to business interests, individual freedom and be a party of less intrusive government. They fail on all accounts with the marriage amendment. Business must hire and retain the best and brightest workers, and some of them will be gay or lesbian. Good luck trying to get those workers to relocate or stay in a state that enshrines discrimination and hate in its constitution.

No doubt there are some within the Republican ranks who would like this marriage amendment to go away. It’s divisive and it detracts from real issues the legislature needs to address, such as education, the economy, health and infrastructure. That sentiment is opposed by those who want Hoosier voters to decide the issue.

Should HJR3 pass the legislature again, it will go to the voters this November. But on the path to election day, Hoosiers can expect an unrelenting blitz of advertisements pro and con, and many of them catering to fear mongering and the spread of disinformation.

Republicans in the Statehouse need to face the fact this amendment will yield no winners, but it will extract a steep price.

— The Star Press, Muncie

Drug screening for welfare has failed test

House Speaker Brian Bosma is eager to require drug tests for welfare recipients. It’s an idea that has been tested and failed.

But Bosma said Thursday he will “enthusiastically endorse” legislation being filed by state Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, that Bosma deemed “entitlement reform through drug testing.”

McMillin has tried three times to require the 27,000 recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to submit to drug testing as a condition of receiving public aid.

Last year, the nonprofit Legislative Services Agency said the program would cost more than $3 million per year, yet the state would recoup only $215,000 from positive tests.

If the state has an extra $3 million to burn, it could extend TANF benefits to more Hoosiers.

Recipients of this assistance are not just poor, they’re very poor. A two-person family, such as a mother and child, would have to earn less than $5,661 a year and have less than $1,000 in assets to qualify for TANF funds.

Bosma wants to “ensure public money is being used for the purpose intended and not for other purposes.” Fair enough. But no such restrictions apply to other recipients of public money, such as state government employees.

Why single out TANF recipients? Where’s the evidence that beneficiaries are more likely than the general public to use illegal drugs?

Florida had a similar drug testing program that was stopped after four months, halted by a court order. During that time, fewer than 3 percent of the tests were positive.

Last month, a federal judge ruled Florida’s law was unconstitutional. Why should Indiana try the same thing and expect different results?

— The Times, Munster

New criminal code needs fair chance

Certainly, the Indiana Legislature should be aware of the recently released report that warns that the state’s new sentencing guidelines will increase rather than decrease the state’s prison population.

At the same time, lawmakers should not take the conclusions of the report by an Atlanta consulting firm as absolute gospel and keep in mind the overall intent of the law is to make criminal sentencing more appropriate and fair, rather than sending a huge number of people down a road that too often leads to a life of crime.

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who worked several years on helping to draft the state’s new criminal code and sentencing guidelines, pointed out that the law doesn’t actually go into effect until July. And lawmakers went into the process with the understanding it would need fine tuning, he says.

The redesigned code calls for charging and sentencing reductions for many non-violent crimes, a lot of them involving low-level drug activity, keeping violators out of the state prison system and thus permitting them the chance to eventually regain their place in the community. That’s a chance that quite often is lost forever once a violator has spent hard time in prison, something the old charging and sentencing system commanded.

Such violators routinely would be sentenced not to the state prison system but to supervised community alternatives, with a goal to change the direction of a life, not simply to mete out punishment.

At the same time, the practice of awarding inmates in the state prison system “good time,” a reduction in time served by half from the sentence handed down by the courts for inmates who remain on good behavior while incarcerated, would be toughened. Under the new law, sentences can be reduced by only 25 percent, and some sentences for serious, violent felonies will be increased.

The latest report, which was presented last month to legislators, predicts that despite reductions in charging and sentencing for non-violent offenders, the state’s prison population will continue to rise, largely because of the tougher “good time” rules and longer sentences for violent offenders.

Pierce said he thinks the report takes a worst-case perspective. We hope he’s right, not as much because we’d all be paying more one way or the other to create more state prison space, but because under the old law, society was too sharply divided into the criminal class and the rest of us. And that division is almost forced on us by the labels applied to those who’ve served time in prison and by the embittering and hardening experience of prison life itself.

We are not interested in coddling criminals. But we must recognize that few of us are born criminals — that it takes a lot of effort on society’s part as well as on the individual’s to turn somebody into a hard-case villain. Strict monitoring and intense follow-through for a lesser offense has the potential to redirect someone just starting down that path. That’s what is supposed to happen within a local context, with a plan built around intensive substance abuse and alcohol programs and careful monitoring of progress.

Monroe County already has a program that intervenes in such cases — the Monroe County Drug Treatment Court that’s been in place for more than a decade. The court process, which includes intense treatment and monitoring of participants, has cut in half the rate of recidivism for those who have gone through it versus similar defendants who have not.

Even if in the short term, prison populations were to increase because most recently convicted violent criminals get longer sentences and get less good time off with this new law, fewer might end up on that track in the long term.

All this is said with this caveat, and it’s a big one: None of it will work unless those intense intervention programs at the local level get adequate funding from the state. That’s the next and biggest hurdle for our state legislators to jump. If they fail, the plan will certainly fail. This is not an unfunded mandate that any county government could afford.

— The Tribune, Seymour

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