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Criminal justice reform bill passes Ind. Senate

By Brittany Tempest

The cost of housing and caring for prison inmates in the U.S. accounts for more than $52 billion in expenses per year. Gov. Mitch Daniels said he plans to make Indiana’s contribution to that number a little less daunting.

On Feb. 22, Gov. Daniels’ Criminal Justice Reform Bill passed the Senate. The Senate approved the bill 46-3. It will now advance to the House of Representatives but not without a few revisions and more expected to come.

Gov. Daniels’ approach revolves around sentencing and parole. The proposed bill would focus on correctional institutions such as rehabilitation centers and county corrections rather than long-term stays in state prisons.

This plan focuses on those imprisoned for substance abuse rather than violent felons.

The former would not be set free without rehabilitation or substance abuse help classes.

The bill originally proposed a 1,000-foot reduction in drug-free zones around the state.  Drug-free zones are areas around schools and parks that demand harsher punishment when violated. Researchers’ analyses suggest sentencing would be greatly reduced if the drug-free zones shrunk. However, Indiana prosecutors nixed this proposed reduction.

Lawmakers have added a provision to help low-level felons rejoin society. Prosecutors, however, expect to target that provision for elimination.

After the first round of revisions, however, many of the provisions of the original bill aimed at diverting low-level drug offenders to treatment and community corrections rather than large prisons remained intact.

Prosecutors have persuaded lawmakers to add a provision so that serious violent felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Offenders often serve only half their sentences because they earn a day of credit for each day of good behavior.

Chief Media Officer for the Indiana Department of Corrections Doug Garrison said despite lowering crime rates, Indiana is still incarcerating more people than other states.

“We have to ask, ‘Are we being smart about who we incarcerate? Are we incarcerating who we really should be?’” Garrison said.

Gov. Daniels said in his blog on on Jan. 19 that during his transition to service in December 2004, he was told Indiana would need to build at least one new prison a year starting immediately. He said with the state low on funds, they needed to find an alternative.

Six years later, Indiana is housing 38 percent more prisoners without having built any additional cells at all, Daniels said in his blog post.

But the lawmakers are out of capacity utilization ideas.

“The hope is to get a grip on the population (of the prisons) and on the cost for the taxpayers,” Garrison said.

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