Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 16, 2012

Prison reform needs support


THE ISSUE: Paying counties that send fewer low-level offenders to prison.

OUR VIEW: Such a measure would encourage Howard County to enroll more class D felons in its community corrections program.

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.