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Address prison overcrowding while there's time

Indiana should learn from the bad example set by California.

Thursday, December 2, 2010 - 10:27 am

One of the benefits of federalism is that states can look to each other both for good practices to copy and for examples of bad government to stay away from. California, which has provided the bad example in so many areas for so many years, is showing Indiana a prison mess to avoid.

Based on remarks made during a Supreme Court hearing this week, it appears a majority of the justices (the four liberals and tie-breaking “moderate” Anthony Kennedy) is ready to uphold a lower court order that California reduce its overcrowded prisons by more than 40,000 inmates, despite warnings that “people are going to die on the streets” if the release happens. At one time, the state incarcerated twice as many people as its prisons were built to hold. Though the state has made progress – the prison population has dropped from a high of 167,000 inmates to about 147,000 – overcrowding led to such poor medical treatment that one inmate died every day from something that could have been prevented.

This is very bad for Californians, but the timing couldn't be better for Indiana, where some public officials are working to keep prison overcrowding from becoming a California-style nightmare.

In recent decades, state legislators have frequently enacted measures that created new crimes and increased penalties for existing ones. This get-tough approach has resulted in Indiana's prison population increasing to 29,000 from the 7,500 we had in 1976, the last year the state did a comprehensive evaluation of its sentencing codes.

But lawmakers have, at the same time, been very stingy when it comes to accommodating all those prisoners. A new prison hasn't been authorized in a decade.

So something clearly has to give. To decide what, the Pew Center on the States and the Council on State Governments Justice Center is finishing a study of the state's criminal justice system and will make recommendations for a sentencing overhaul. Included in the study will be evaluations of probation and parole supervision practices, community corrections and transition programs, the use of specialty courts such as drug and family courts, and sentencing guidelines and requirements.

The report and its recommendations are expected later this month, and members of the General Assembly had better pay attention. If they don't address the issue in the 2011 session, they might have some explaining to do to Hoosiers when courts start ordering inmates to be released. California put things off until there was a crisis. Let's please learn from that mistake.