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Staff editorial: Approve Daniels’ prison plan


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Gov. Mitch Daniels’ comprehensive prison reform plan should be approved by this year’s state legislature at the earliest opportunity.

Americans are still trying to figure out a system of punishment that is both cost-effective and rehabilitative. Daniels’ recent proposal to reform the justice system in Indiana is the sort of system that the rest of the country should take note of. His plan will give judges the flexibility to set their own sentences for non-violent offenders and encourage rehab for drug offenders instead of jail time.

The expected cost savings to the state could help alleviate serious economic woes.

Additionally, Daniels’ plan would encourage local communities to handle minor criminal offenders in their local jails, keeping people out of more expensive state prisons and decreasing the likelihood that the prisoners will re-offend.

His plan would also expedite and reform the bureaucratic parole process in Indiana, allowing well-behaved, non-violent prisoners to be released and reintegrated into society at an earlier point in their prison terms.

The number of inmates in Indiana prison systems has grown 41 percent since 2000 — nearly three times the national rate — and this despite a steady decline in the number of inmates being re-incarcerated over the last three years.

The majority of this growth came from nonviolent offenders, principally people being incarcerated for drug crimes.

The cost of this rise in prisoners is very high. Hoosiers continue to pay nearly $20,000 per year per inmate to house almost 29,000 inmates. To put that in perspective, the undergraduate population at IU is 32,367, and the annual tuition and fees for an in-state student is $9,028. It costs taxpayers more to send a man to prison for a year than it would to send him to IU.   

A recent study by the Council of State Governments indicated that Indiana’s prison population would rise a further 21 percent by 2017 if no reform was enacted, which would cost the state an extra $1.2 billion in an already tight economic period for state governments. Daniels’ reform program would save the state the vast majority of that money, with a price tag of about $20 million  that is meager by comparison.

In a time when the majority of states across the country are facing serious budget shortfalls, this plan deserves serious attention from states across the country.

If California had adopted a similar plan, it may not have had to release potentially dangerous prisoners early last year because its prison system was so bloated.

States should adopt comprehensive prison reform plans now to avoid this sort of problem later.

The justice system is about both punishment and rehabilitation, and as a society, we’ve spent too much time focusing on the punishment. It has cost us financially and not made us a safer society. Daniels’ prison reform efforts are not perfect, but the law is an imprecise thing.

These new reforms do raise new concerns: Will cities be able to handle the influx of inmates in their jails? Will this encourage prosecutors to push for federal cases in situations they might have taken otherwise?

These concerns are serious, but they do not outweigh the benefits, both from a societal and cost-savings perspective, that passing Daniels’ reforms would bring.

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