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Number of prisoners skyrockets in 30 years

More Information

Costly cons

♦$635 million: Indiana Department of Correction budget

♦$10.3 million: 2008 Allen County Jail budget

♦$43: Daily per-prisoner cost at Allen County Jail

♦2.3 million: Prisoners in U.S. jails and prisons; in 1979, 450,000 - percentage increase: 360

♦27,742: Prisoners in Indiana state prisons; in 1979, 4,400 - percentage increase: 530

♦781: Prisoners in Allen County Jail; in 1981, 180 - percentage increase: 333

Sources: Allen County Sheriff's Department, Bureau of Justice Statistics,

Indiana Department of Correction

Friday, April 10, 2009 - 10:18 am

Busting more people could bust the budget.

While the recession and property tax caps are shrinking revenue, Indiana's prison population continues to grow, something lawmakers have to ponder when considering stricter sentencing bills.

“If a true truth-in-sentencing law were enacted, where defendants had to serve what they do in the federal system, which is like 85 percent of their sentence, the increase in our capacity would explode,” said Doug Garrison, Indiana Department of Correction spokesman. “We'd have to build so many new prisons, and the cost of that would be in the hundreds of millions.”

Prison costs in the city, state and nation are already staggering thanks to tough-on-crime laws enacted over the last 30 years. With some 2.3 million prisoners, the U.S. leads the world in imprisoning its citizens. The population has grown from about 450,000 in 1979, regardless of increases or decreases in crime rates.

Indiana has mirrored the rest of the nation, with its population increasing more than 530 percent from 4,400 on Jan. 1, 1979, to 27,742 on Jan. 1, according to the Indiana Department of Correction. The spike has had a hefty price tag for taxpayers. The department's $635 million annual budget is the largest of any state agency.

There were 781 prisoners in the Allen County Jail on Thursday. When it opened in 1981, the jail - most recently expanded in 2004 - was designed to hold about 180 prisoners, according to the Allen County Sheriff's Department.

It costs local taxpayers $43 per day for each prisoner in the jail. In 1990, the earliest year for which statistics are available, the jail processed 11,673 prisoners. Last year, 16,940 were processed, a 31 percent increase.

Allen County Superior Court Judge Frances C. Gull - who served as Allen County prosecutor from 1987 to 1996 - said she frequently receives letters from prisoners who can't get alcohol or drug rehabilitation because of waiting lists.

“We're warehousing people in prisons. We need alternatives that we don't have and people don't want to increase their tax dollars to pay for them,” Gull said.

“I can't tell you how much a drug-free baby is worth. I can't tell you how much a drug-free person is worth. It's hard to quantify.”

But there have been attempts to quantify the benefits of drug treatment. Research shows short-term spending on treating rather than imprisoning addicts yields long-term savings.

A 2006 study of California drug-treatment programs partially funded by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded every $1 spent on treatment saves $7 in reduced crime and economic productivity. A 1997 study by the Rand Corp., a Washington, D.C., think tank, found that every $1 million spent on treatment reduces drug use eight times more than imprisonment.

While the number of drug users imprisoned increased 1,100 percent between 1980 and 2005, six in 10 people in state prisons on drug offenses have no violent history or high-level drug selling activity. And marijuana possession accounted for 42.6 percent of all drug arrests in 2005, according to The Sentencing Project, a liberal prison reform group, which used FBI statistics.

Ryan S. King, project policy analyst, said he understands it's natural for the public to call for stricter sentencing when habitual criminals commit heinous crimes shortly after getting out of prison.

“But we need to take a step back patiently and think about what are our other options,” King said. “Incarceration for everybody is not necessarily the best solution and particularly for substance abusers, particularly for people who suffer from mental illness.”

On March 26, U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., introduced a bipartisan bill that would set up a national commission that would spend 18 months studying how to reduce prison overcrowding, prison violence and recidivism. Webb, who favors an end to federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, supports alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Webb noted that while the U.S. has about 5 percent of the world's population, it has about 25 percent of the world's known prison population.

“There are only two possibilities here,” Webb said. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

In a March 29 interview on National Public Radio, Webb said prison should be for incorrigible criminals, but the quadrupling of the nation's prison population hasn't made communities safer.

“You deter crime by people having a fairly good assurance that they're going to get caught rather than the length of the sentence,” Webb said.

While Webb says there has been too much emphasis on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation, state Sen. David Long, R-Fort Wayne, the Senate majority leader, contends Indiana has a good balance. Long chaired the legislature's Sentencing Policy Study Committee in 2006, which recommended more participation in recidivism-reduction programs like the Allen County Re-Entry Court.

Long, who supports stricter sentencing, said a bill that would have required 85 percent of sentences to be served for some violent crimes was passed in the Senate last year, but was defeated in the House.

The Sentencing Project found that nationally, 14.1 percent of regular drug users in prison were receiving treatment in 2004, compared with 36.5 percent in 1991. However, Long said drug treatment in Indiana prisons has improved. While supporting programs like the re-entry court, Long said violent criminals belong behind bars.

“Those are the people you're seeing locked up, and we've done a better job of dealing with them in recent times with our tougher sentences,” Long said. “That's a good thing.”