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A Missed Chance for Criminal Justice Reform in Indiana

Gilbert Holmes,
ACLU of Indiana
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May 5, 2011

As the legislative session comes to a close this week, Indiana missed an important opportunity to save billions in taxpayer dollars and establish ourselves as a leader in criminal justice reform. Instead of standing up for what’s right for all Indiana residents, our lawmakers gave in to the fear-driven politics of a special interest group by rejecting a plan that would have drastically reduced corrections spending and improved our public safety.

When Gov. Mitch Daniels unveiled his prison reform plan in January, all eyes were on Indiana to pave the way toward smart corrections reform that would ease our budget woes. Daniels’ plan aimed to free up prison space for those who pose the greatest threat to public safety and save more than $1 billion in the process. When introduced in the Senate in its original incarnation, Senate Bill 561 aligned with Daniels’ intentions and was a unique example of bipartisan collaboration.

But any chance for meaningful reform this year was lost because legislators allowed county prosecutors to exploit their political anxieties with fearful rhetoric about the bill not being “tough on crime.” The Senate was persuaded by prosecutors to pass an amended version of the bill that turned the governor’s proposal on its head. The amended version would have prevented people from exiting prison even after they had shown they could successfully reenter society without posing a threat to public safety. Had the amended version become law, we would have had to build three new prisons, at a cost of $210 million each with an additional $48 million a year in operating costs.

Daniels rightfully announced he would veto such a costly and ineffective mess. But when the amended version of SB 561 moved over to the House earlier this month, our representatives let it die rather than changing it back to the original version and sending the governor a viable bill.

The tragedy is that evidence and reason prove the governor’s proposal was in no way soft on crime. All this talk about being “tough on crime” is nothing more than empty rhetoric when it means blindly doling out lengthy prison sentences for people who simply don’t need them. In fact, such an approach is both unreasonable and tough on taxpayer dollars. There is simply no reason to unnecessarily keep people locked up. Across the board, research shows that alternatives to prison not only cost significantly less than prison time, but also ensure lower rates of recidivism.

Indiana already spends $670 million annually on corrections. In a time of financial crisis, it is senseless to waste precious resources on policies that we know are ineffective. Some states have already recognized this reality. Texas, for example, reformed its prison system by expanding the use of drug and mental health treatment, reduced its prison population and saw a 10 percent drop in crime. Mississippi also revamped its laws requiring individuals to serve unnecessarily lengthy sentences, and now allows them to be paroled when they no longer pose a public safety risk. Efforts like these have gained the support of notable conservatives like Newt Gingrich, who have launched the conservative “Right on Crime” campaign calling for reduced reliance on prisons.

It is deeply disturbing that our lawmakers, when presented with this truth, allowed themselves to be co-opted by prosecutors, ultimately making a fiscally irresponsible decision that will affect future generations of Indianan residents. As our Legislature closes its doors, we must now cross our collective fingers and hope that next year our lawmakers come to their senses. If they are serious about closing our deficit and reducing wasteful spending in Indiana, they must introduce a bill in 2012 that models the governor’s original vision and vote it into law.

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