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Indiana Considers Sweeping Changes to Criminal Sentences

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has several problems: budget shortages, increasing costs in Indiana's prison system, and an increasing prison population. In the past eight years, Indiana's prison population has grown by 41 percent, almost three times as fast as its neighbors. In fact, Indiana has the nation's fastest-growing prison population. What is worse is that the cost of maintaining the prison system has increased more than sixfold in that time, from $100 million to $600 million.

The solution? Big changes in the way Indiana judges sentence criminals. About 55 percent of the increase in Indiana's prison admissions is due to convicted nonviolent theft and drug offenders. Indiana's theft and drug penalties are much more severe than those of other states. Presently, Indiana judges do not have much of a sentencing alternative other than jail time.

That may change if the recommendations in a recent study approved by the governor are put into effect. The research was provided by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, along with a 14-member steering committee including legislators, judges, police, and prosecutors. The idea is to keep nonviolent offenders out of the prison system to free up space for the state's worst criminals. The lesser offenders will be sentenced to community-based correction programs or drug treatment facilities. The study estimates that Indiana's prison population can be maintained at the present level and that taxpayers will save approximately $1.2 billion needed to build and staff new prisons.

The report also calls for increased access to community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment to keep more former inmates from going back to prison. Better supervision and oversight of offenders on probation and parole is also hoped to keep fewer from entering the prison gates.

The Indiana legislature must approve the recommendations before they are implemented. The next step is endorsement by the state's Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, which is expected. Proponents then hope to introduce bills in the Indiana House and Senate with the recommended changes in January. They are hopeful that one of the bills will make it through the legislature by the end of the next session.