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EDITORIAL

Other states moving ahead on prison reform

And Indiana has no choice but to put it back on the agenda.

Monday, May 23, 2011 - 9:54 am

Gov. Mitch Daniels can boast of many things he got through the recently concluded General Assembly session. But he had one big failure in prison reform.

Indiana legislators have had a habit of getting tough on crime but balking at adding to prison space, with predictable results. The Daniels plan, recommended by a think tank and relying largely on alternative sentencing for low-level crimes, would have reduced the $675 million annual price tag for corrections and prevented the need for $1 billion in additional prisons. But county prosecutors objected to the bill as “soft on crime,” and legislative attempts to fix the bill to answer that concern would likely have ended with an even costlier prison program. The attempt at reform was wisely dropped.

But the problem won't go away, so the attempt has to be made again. Perhaps this time, consultations with prosecutors can produce a bill everyone could live with.

In the meantime, Hoosier officials ought to study efforts in other states for ideas to copy or avoid. Prison overcrowding is a problem everywhere, and a lot of different ways are being tried to deal with it. For example:

• Texas reduced its prison population by expanding drug and mental health treatment.

• Mississippi got rid of some lengthy sentences by letting prisoners be paroled when they no longer pose a threat to the public.

• Florida is going to bring in more private contractors to run its prisons.

• Ohio is making an effort to move some prisoners to less-intensive supervision and speed up probation and parole processes.

• Oklahoma expanded a community sentencing program for nonviolent offenders.

The U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, according to the International Center for Prison Studies – 743 per 100,000 of population. It's 585 in Russian, 120 in China, 86 in France, 88 in Germany. As a result, we have more than 2 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails. State spending on prisons jumped to $74 billion in 2007 from $63 billion in 1997.

With the average prisoner now costing $24,000 a year, the expense is becoming prohibitive. In a time of fiscal alarm, prison operation is a major expense that has to be tackled. But it's not just that – overcrowding is getting to the point where there are humanitarian issues, and states that don't address it will be forced to by courts. Having to suddenly start letting people go isn't exactly tough on crime.

Try again, Indiana. If there were ever a good candidate for a summer legislative study committee, this is it.