News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 19, 2010

Indiana inmate population up 41 percent since 2000

Wabash Valley officials look at the diagramming of prison sentences

TERRE HAUTE — A person convicted of selling $50 worth of methamphetamine to another Vigo County drug user was sentenced to 24 years in prison earlier this year.

Meanwhile, a person recently convicted of rape faces a prison sentence of 6 to 20 years behind bars.

Sure, both defendants are off the streets and the public is safer for now. But are the citizens of Indiana better protected by imprisoning the addict and paying for his room and board for several years, or by ordering and supervising treatment for his addiction and saving the cost of incarceration?

If the rapist gets the advisory 10-year sentence, a person who committed a violent crime could be back on the streets in five years, unrehabilitated.

Many state leaders think Indiana’s sentencing guidelines are out of whack in terms of protecting the public from violent offenders. And a new report analyzing crime and prison population in Indiana reveals that state laws do not result in sentences that are proportionate to the severity of the crime.

Some Wabash Valley officials agree with that assessment, and support proposed legislation to change sentencing guidelines.

Vigo Superior Court Judge David Bolk, who serves on the Indiana Judicial Conference Board of Directors, said the new report has some interesting conclusions in two primary areas — drug sentencing guidelines and the penalties for felony theft.

“Indiana is behind the curve and it really adds to the prison population,” Bolk said of the sentencing guidelines.

Indiana’s drug sentencing guidelines are among the toughest in the nation, the judge said, pointing to a comparison that shows the penalties for selling 3 grams of cocaine. In Indiana, that offense could get a sentence of 20 to 50 years in prison. In Texas, however, the minimum prison time is 2 years and the maximum is 20. In Wisconsin, the maximum is 12.5 years. In Ohio, a conviction for that crime has a penalty of probation to 1 year behind bars.

Factoring in good-time credit, that makes Indiana’s minimum prison time for someone convicted of selling 3 grams of cocaine at least six times longer than the maximum for a person convicted in Ohio.

And the same sentence applies for a person found in possession of 3 kilograms of cocaine (likely a drug dealer) as it does for a person with only 3 grams (likely for personal use).

That lack of a graduated penalty scale for drug offenses is cited as one of the reasons Indiana’s prisons are filling up, causing state officials to look for an alternative to spending an estimated $1.2 billion to construct more prisoner housing.

The state also lacks graduated penalties for theft.

Bolk said other states base their penalties on the value of the property stolen. In Indiana, a class-D felony covers thefts from $0 up to $100,000. Most states define the felony threshold as above a certain amount. For example, in Wisconsin, theft below $2,500 is a misdemeanor which does not carry a prison term.

Another interesting angle of Indiana sentencing guidelines, Bolk said, is that prisoners can earn credit time for good behavior and for completing programming such as educational degrees, life skills and drug counseling classes.

Often, the prisoners with a shorter sentence for a felony theft charge do not qualify to receive programming or counseling. But the inmates convicted of more serious times can get large reductions in their sentences. A person convicted of a class-D felony must serve half of their sentence, but a violent class-A felon can earn time cuts to be released after serving only 38 percent of their sentence.

Another big point made by the study’s findings, is that Indiana’s violent crime rate has declined during the past 10 years, but the overall arrest rates have increased, boosting prison population 41 percent since 2000. Of those admitted to prison in 2009, 66 percent spent less than one year behind bars, according to prison statistics.

Bolk said he thinks that community-based treatment for the non-violent offenders is a better option than short-term prison sentences. But for that to work, the state would need to allocate dollars to professional drug treatment facilities. In the past year, Terre Haute has lost two such facilities due to financial difficulties.

The one remaining professional facility shows positive results for its clients, at a cost far cheaper than incarceration, making it a more cost-effective option than incarceration, Bolk noted.

“We cannot continue to incarcerate people at the rates we do,” he said simply.

The fact that Indiana has remained on fiscally sound ground in past years, unlike many surrounding states, has meant that no Hoosier prisons have been closed due to cutbacks as they have in other states, Bolk noted.

But building a new prison to house a growing number of inmates at a time when crime rates are decreasing may not be fiscally wise. And the money could be better spent in treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

That point is supported by Sen. Richard Bray (R-Martinsville), who serves on the Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee, which guided the new criminal justice analysis.

“The idea is, if we can prevent building another prison, and people going into the Department of Correction, the money goes to the community corrections side,” Bray told the Tribune-Star.

On the side of Vigo County’s Community Corrections program is executive director Bill Watson, who said the study’s recommendations on sentencing guidelines make sense.

Directing non-violent offenders into the community corrections program makes sense on many levels — but most importantly, economically.

Of the 130 people housed in Vigo County’s work release center, all of them must pay for their housing and food.

“The offender pays for all of it,” Watson said. “We get no county dollars. We operate on user fee dollars and state grant dollars. We operate a great portion of our budget off user fees.”

Those offenders on the electronic monitoring program must also pay fees to cover equipment costs. So of those 130 people being served, neither the state nor county incurs a prison cost while those people are serving their sentences.

Vigo County has used the community corrections program for about 20 years, and has operated its work release center for about seven years.

In some cases, Watson said, an offender is assigned to community corrections as a direct commitment, rather than going to the state prison system. At other times, an offender who has been in prison transitions to community corrections to finish a prison term prior to release back into the community. Everyone in the community corrections program must have a job, and many of the offenders have two or three jobs to pay the cost of their incarceration.

“Community corrections is another sentencing option at the local level,” Watson said, explaining that the offenders only leave the center to go to work, court and medical appointments. While residing there, the offender must attend assigned programs such as anger management, education and life skills classes.

“We can do so much more at the local level, we just need dollars to do it,” Watson said.

While the study’s recommendations call for some of the money saved on prison construction to be diverted to programs such as community corrections, Watson cautiously said he hopes the final legislation will send the funding resources to cover any cost increases.

Legislation is now being written to go to both the Indiana House of Representatives and the Senate to get a solution for the prison population and sentencing guidelines issues. If that legislation comes together in the spring session of the legislature, it could go into effect July 1, 2011.

The report emphasizes that the changes should apply only to people convicted of crimes after the law goes into effect, and should not be retroactive. Accordingly, it would take 3 to 4 years before the policy changes would have an impact on prison population.

The summary report and policy framework presented by the Council of State Governments Justice Center can be accessed online at jus

ticereinvestment.org/states/indiana/pubmaps-in.

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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