Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hoosiers May Wisen Up on Sentencing

This article details how Indiana is joining the list of states feeling the financial crunch and deciding to take a long, hard look at their sentencing policies:

Gov. Mitch Daniels on Monday announced a partnership among Indiana, the Pew Center on the States, and the Council of State Governments' Justice Center to examine the state's sentencing laws, recidivism rates and incarceration practices with the aim of saving money.

"Having more dangerous and repeat-offending criminals in prison is the best way to protect Hoosiers, but if our current laws and practices result in nondangerous offenders taking up space at high cost to taxpayers, there may be better ways to manage that," Daniels said.

Since the last sentencing review in 1976, Indiana's prison population has increased from about 7,500 adults to nearly 29,000 today. While the average sentence for an Indiana prisoner is approximately 19 years, last year 4,583 offenders were sentenced to fewer than 90 days in the Department of Correction, with 1,361 serving fewer than 30 days.

Constantly moving people through the prison system for short sentences costs a lot of money, said Adam Gelb, project director for the Pew Center. The state spends about $700 million a year on prisons.

"The fundamental premise here is that prisons are a government spending program. And just like any government spending program, be it education or health care, it needs to be put to the cost-benefit test," Gelb said. "Are we getting the best return possible on our public safety dollars?"
Sounds like they're asking the right questions.  Indiana has made changes to its mandatory minimum sentences before.  In 2001, Indiana legislators eliminated the state’s mandatory 20-year prison sentence for drug offenders arrested with three grams or more of cocaine, giving courts authority to sentence drug offenders who sell drugs to support their drug dependency to treatment instead of prison.  Indiana also put an exception in its “three strikes” law for habitual substance abusers. 
Mandatory minimums are the ultimate cash cows of any sentencing system.  If Indiana really wants to save money fast, these laws should be at the top of its list for reform.