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Associated Press
Prisoners at the Plainfield Correctional Facility are packed into crowded dormitories in this 2009 photo. Legislative efforts to stem the state’s fast-growing prison population with sentencing reform failed this year, but should succeed in 2012.

Sentencing reform fuel

Two new reports should give Indiana lawmakers the resolve they need to approve sound criminal justice reform in 2012. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union outlines how even some tough-on-crime states have passed common-sense sentencing reform, while a national legislative report offers principles for effective sentencing and corrections.

In the last legislative session, with strong GOP majorities in both chambers and a reform package endorsed by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, lawmakers still couldn’t find the courage to adopt reasonable changes to the state’s criminal code. An election year makes the prospects even dimmer, but growing economic unease should fuel reform if troubling prison statistics aren’t enough.

The ACLU report, released Tuesday, notes that the number of people held in U.S. prisons grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2010. One-quarter of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S., even though the U.S. has just 5 percent of the global population.

A January study by the Pew Center on the States noted that Indiana’s prison population grew three times faster than any neighboring state over the last decade, while its crime rate declined slightly. The study attributed Indiana’s increase to more property and drug offenders being sentenced to prison.

“Too often, lawmakers have devised criminal justice policy in emotional response to a highly publicized crime or perception of a crime trend,” according to the ACLU report, “Smart Reform is Possible.”

“This misguided lawmaking has resulted in both overly punitive laws that cast too wide a net and inhumanely long prison sentences that have little to do with maintaining public safety.”

While heralding the successful efforts of Texas, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Ohio and Kentucky, the ACLU report singles out Indiana as one of four states working toward reform, noting Daniels’ package of reforms, estimated to save the state more than $1 billion. Introduced as Senate Bill 561, its sponsors included both Republicans and Democrats.

“Unfortunately, using ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric, prosecutors persuaded the Senate to pass an amended version of the bill that turned the original proposal on its head,” the report notes. “Had the amended version become law, it would have actually increased prison time, population and budgets; the state would have had to build three new prisons, at a cost of $210 million each with an additional $48 million a year to operate them. Gov. Daniels rightfully announced that he would veto such a costly and ineffective bill.”

The ACLU notes the continued effort to push reform here, including the work of an interim study committee. The General Assembly’s Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee is charged with examining several issues. The panel recently heard testimony on marijuana-sentencing reform.

“Indiana remains a state at a crossroads: If state officials are serious about closing the deficit and reducing unnecessary incarceration, they will pass legislation in 2012 that models the governor’s original vision.”

The report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, released Wednesday, offers practical approaches to reform, with an emphasis on achieving “immediate effect on state public safety dollars while also ensuring that the public safety is protected into the future.” It notes that criminal justice reform approved this year in Kentucky moves beyond ideas of being “soft” or “tough” on crime.

“Instead they look to be smart on crime to ensure that sentencing policies contribute to a favorable state return on public safety expenditures,” according to the NCSL report.

Hoosiers might not understand the intricacies and success rates of alternative sentencing options, for example, but they certainly understand dollars and sense. Lawmakers should focus on the latter as they push for sentencing reform success next year.