News and Tribune

December 20, 2012

THEIR OPINION: Recent editorials from Indiana newspapers

The conversation we must have in wake of Connecticut tragedy

Every time there is a mass shooting, we react with shock and dismay and vow to have a serious conversation about how such horrors can be prevented. But time passes and the pain fades, and we never seem to have that conversation.

But the shooting in Newton, Conn., Friday was so monstrous that perhaps we will finally have that conversation. Authorities said 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then went to Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 25 more people, including 20 children, before taking his own life. It was the second-worst school shooting in American history if sheer numbers alone are considered – 33 died at Virginia Tech in 2007. But considering the age of the victims, this outrage might deserve the “worst ever” label.

There are two things we desperately need to talk about – the availability of guns and the failures of our mental health systems. We can’t seem to talk seriously about either one, but for different reasons.

With guns, it’s because of the polarization over the issue. On one side are gun-control fanatics who assume guns can be willed away – that somehow strictly controlling them won’t further embolden criminals and weaken honest citizens. On the other side are gun-rights fanatics who treat every attempt at regulation, however modest, as a vicious threat to the fundamental rights of all. Because those two groups talk past each other, we never get to the real issue, which is that it is far too easy for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them. Surely we all hope that when people such as Lanza get their murderous impulses there isn’t a deadly weapon handy. How can we keep such people from getting guns without depriving us all of our rights?

With mental illness, it’s because we’re afraid to talk about the subject at all, because those who suffer from it remain the most stigmatized people in America. But there are dangerous people with mental afflictions who need help but don’t want it. We must talk about helping them anyway, even if it includes some amount of involuntary detention. How do we identify such people, and how do we help them against their will? And how do we do that without further stigmatizing the vast majority of those with mental illness, who are no more of a threat than people without mental illness? As with the gun issue, the trick is to find the balance between the rights of the individual and the need for public safety.

Finding such balance won’t be easy, but the effort is imperative. Only if we make the effort will we ever get to the crux of the matter, which resides at that point where mental illness and access to guns intersect.

— (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

After Newtown, America’s next gun question

You have to look back only to July to see the pattern: A mass murder, done in random and instant style, shocks the nation. Cries surge for change, from gun control to access to mental health care to the most brutal and violent pieces of the entertainment industry.

What happens? The advocates come away with more fodder, whether for change or in defense of the status quo on whatever their particular bent happens to be — from gun control to access to mental health care to the most brutal and violent pieces of the entertainment industry.

After 20 children and seven adults were slaughtered Friday morning in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., there’s no reason to think anything will be done this time, either.

And that’s an absolute indictment of where we are.

Consider this passage from the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health. John Harris, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona, wrote: “Rampage violence seems to lead to repeated cycles of anguish, investigation, recrimination, and heated debate, with little real progress in prevention. These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability.”

But as a stunned America comes to grips again with the anywhere-ness of what happened in Newtown — in Aurora, Colo., at Virginia Tech, at Columbine High School, at insert-incident-here — it’s difficult to ignore at least one part of the gun control angle.

If gun violence was a motivator to make substantial changes, we would have been moved by the drug-driven violence ripping Chicago apart in the past year. And additional regulations on guns, of course, won’t solve the reasons why a 20-year-old in Connecticut was compelled to go his local elementary and take so many lives. But they can at least address the mass nature of the killings.

The need for military-style rifles — including one Adam Lanza reportedly used during his rampage — is difficult to comprehend. How much longer is it worth keeping assault weapons a legal option?

President Barack Obama has talked a good game after past mass shooting about bringing some sensible restrictions back to the market. But he’s never followed through.

What does the president have to lose at this point? Or is he willing to hold onto the political capital until the next mass murder?

— (Lafayette) Journal and Courier

Indiana prison sentencing reform needs support

Indiana lawmakers considered two visions of the state’s criminal justice system during their most recent legislative session.

One was represented by Martin County Prosecutor Mike Steiner, who sees prison as a last resort for low-level offenders.

“My personal belief,” he said, “is that going to the Department of Correction is like going to grad school for crime.”

The other vision was represented by Huntington County Superior Court Judge Jeff Heffelfinger.

“We send people to prison because they belong there,” he said. “It’s what our communities expect us to do.”

The numbers in the two counties reflect those divergent points of view. The odds of going to prison for a low-level offense are higher in Huntington County than anywhere else in the state. Those odds in Martin County are near zero.

This was not a fight, though, between tight-fisted conservatives and bleeding-heart liberals. In fact, fiscal conservatives such as Gov. Mitch Daniels was among those arguing prisons are the wrong place for many offenders.

Part of the reason: A recent rise in the state prison population has Indiana’s leaders concerned they soon will have to build more prisons. To avoid that, folks like Daniels were hoping to redirect many low-level offenders into alternative programs such as community corrections.

“It’s first about reducing recidivism and then about saving state dollars,” the governor said last year. “It’s in that order.”

The state already encourages local counties to develop community corrections programs and offers grants to keep the cost off of local taxpayers. The program serving Cass County has placed it among those counties sending the fewest low-level offenders to state prisons.

Despite reporting 87 percent of adults and juveniles as successfully completing its community corrections programs in 2008, Howard County sends an above-average number of low-level offenders to prison.

Under a measure considered in the last legislative session, counties that sent fewer class D felony offenders to state prisons would get more funding. Those that sent more would see their funding cut.

We encourage lawmakers to debate sentencing reform again next month.

Cass County will likely benefit from such a measure, which will also free up room in state prisons for the truly hard-core criminals who ought to be there. Howard County will be encouraged to enroll more class D felons in its community corrections program.

This is legislation area lawmakers should support.

— Kokomo Tribune