The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, January 19, 2022 1:00 am


Reform doesn't pay

Counties continue to suffer consequences of well-intended 2014 sentencing overhaul

EDITORIAL BOARD | The Journal Gazette

After half a dozen years of Statehouse proposals, study committees and legislative debate, economics finally caught up with the Indiana General Assembly in 2014 and its push to get tough on crime.

Since 2016, people who commit the most violent of crimes are serving longer state prison sentences, and fewer people convicted of low-level felonies are serving their time within the Indiana Department of Correction.

The result was easily foreseen: Counties are seeing huge spikes in nonviolent offenders, who would've been serving years in prison just five years ago. Now our county jails are struggling to make room for local inmates and keep up with the costs to house them.

Last year alone, almost 16,000 Level 6 felony offenders were placed in county jails instead of state prisons, the Indianapolis Star reported Jan. 6. And since 2010, Indiana's county jail population has exploded 60%, the Star found.

That has led to federal lawsuits. A suit against Allen County alleges its jail is overcrowded and doesn't provide enough medical attention, recreation and oversight from corrections officers. Inmates of the Vigo County Jail filed a similar suit in December, the Tribune-Star of Terre Haute reported.

So last week, House members of the General Assembly passed House Bill 1004. It pulls the plug on the state sentencing reforms of 2014 and gives judges the discretion to send Level 6 felony offenders – those convicted of offenses such as theft, possession of a controlled substance or forgery – to state prisons instead of county jails.

How did we get here?

A report from the Pew Center for the States in 2010 found Indiana's state prison population had ballooned by 41% from 2000 to 2008. That was significantly higher than the 12% average for the nation as a whole in that same time period. The Pew study blamed harsher sentencing and corrections policies over the previous three decades.

To reverse the trend, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and a number of Indiana lawmakers proposed reforms they said would create a more precise set of drug and theft sentencing laws that would give judges more options.

They proposed strengthening community supervision by focusing resources on high-risk offenders and reducing recidivism by increasing access to community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Many of these proposals finally were adopted in 2014. But the reforms didn't include funding to improve probation, parole and treatment programs on the county level.

Lawmakers addressed that oversight in the 2015 legislative session, providing $116 million for community corrections and increasing funding for mental health and addiction treatment by $30 million.

“But we are still waiting to fully fund [sentencing reform]. That was on us to do, and we've never done it,” Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, told The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly for a story Sunday. “And so sheriffs are frustrated and we arrived at this point. As much as I don't like that this is a surrender, I think it's a practical thing that we have to do.”

The criminal code reforms of 2014 helped put the Hoosier State on the right track economically. But over the past five years, they only have pushed the expense of corrections – incarceration, jail staffing and programing designed to divert low-level offenders from confinement – onto county governments.

Counties need relief from this unfunded state mandate. The preferred way to address the problem would be for state lawmakers to biannually earmark the necessary funding for county community corrections.

Jettisoning sentencing reform designed to reduce offender recidivism based purely on cost puts corrections in Indiana back at least 15 years.

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