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Don't let the objections kill prison reform plan

Getting a handle on overpopulation must be a top priority.

Thursday, January 20, 2011 - 10:45 am

The General Assembly is considering a plan of sweeping prison reform backed by Gov. Mitch Daniels. It would save the state money and prevent the need for more prison space while doing a better job of meting out the right punishment for the right crime and better protecting law-abiding citizens. Now, an objection from a group of county prosecutors over one portion of the proposal threatens to kill the whole plan, and it would be a shame if it did.

The part objected to by the board of the Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys is the recommendation of the State Criminal Code Evaluation Commission to shorten sentences for possession of and dealing in small amounts of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. “The question is: Where is the breaking point where you're saving money to the point that it may seriously impact public safety?” asked Shelby County Prosecutor Kent Apsley on behalf of the board.

There is no formal impact on the legislation by the board's position. But it would be difficult to get the legislation through if the board maintains its objection, says state Sen. Bray, R-Martinsville, because legislators would not want to be seen as soft on crime. And if the legislature gives in and doesn't reduce the sentences, the whole plan would likely fall apart. The proposal envisions using the money saved by reducing the terms to fund another part of the plan – expanding drug abuse treatment and concentrating more resources on monitoring higher-risk offenders.

Under the proposal, possession of small amounts of cocaine or meth would be downgraded from a C felony (two to eight years) to a D felony (six months to three years) and small-scale dealing of those drugs from a B felony (six to 20 years) to a C felony.

It is fair for prosecutors to question the appropriateness of such reductions – they're in the business of dealing with crime and punishment, after all. And it's appropriate for the plan's backers to deal with the questions. But the give-and-take should be undertaken with the goal of working something out so the overall plan can be strengthened and saved.

Indiana's prison population has grown at triple the rate of neighboring states over the past eight years. If such growth continues, it will cost an additional $1.2 billion over the next seven years, money the state can't afford and the legislature has not been inclined to approve. The problem has to be addressed, and in a deliberative, measured way, not in a panicked response to a judge's order to start thinning out the prison population. This is a job for the adults to tackle.