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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 11:33 am

Local corrections funds in doubt

Niki Kelly The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – The enthusiasm for a major shift away from jailing low-level offenders to local treatment and supervision instead is clear at the Statehouse.

But will the money be there when the budget is finalized at the end of April?

It is the final question in a criminal justice overhaul that has been in the works for five years.

"I can’t for the life of me believe it’s going to be funded the way it needs to be," Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull said. "This is expensive work we are doing. If the goal is to keep people locally, they have to give us resources."

Gov. Mike Pence’s initial budget proposal contained no new money for community corrections or other local treatment programs.

Instead, he focused on building prisons – exactly the opposite of what lawmakers wanted when they passed the criminal code reform in 2013. The initiative was phased in, and judges are now starting to sentence for crimes committed under the new regime.

"The House took a swing at this issue. I think we would do well to sharpen our pencils," Pence said. "We want to have a good faith conversation with how do we support the implementation of this new effort to more effectively use community corrections. The community corrections piece is a little harder to quantify."

House Bill 1006 provides the framework to help local communities absorb thousands of low-level offenders who will no longer go to the Indiana Department of Correction.

Many of these offenders have drug addictions, mental illnesses or both, Gull said.

The bill establishes the Justice Reinvestment Community Grants Program, to be administered by the Indiana Judicial Center. Grants can be used to help develop alternatives to incarceration at the county and community levels but can’t be spent on capital projects.

The money behind the bill is in the state budget. House Republicans set aside $30 million for the reinvestment grants in fiscal year 2016 and $50 million in fiscal year 2017.

One goal is to have all counties participating in community corrections by 2020. Currently, 84 counties do. The eight that do not include Kosciusko County in northeast Indiana.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, said that as many as 6,300 inmates will now be handled on the local level. And programs must be in place to help counties.

"Without funding, it’s just not going to work. It’s just that simple," he said.

The $80 million in the House Republican budget is almost guaranteed to go down in the Senate version when it is unveiled April 9 by Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville.

He said he felt the House put full funding in pretty quickly, and he will likely look at a slower, phased-in approach.

"It’s a sea change in terms of where your prisoners are going to be – whether they are actually going to be a prisoner or not. But it’s going to take time for this to roll out," Kenley said. "We’re going to fund where we think the situation will be for the next two years. At the end of that time, we’ll see how much we are doing and whether the demand is greater."

Elsewhere in the budget, the House provided $47 million annually for the community corrections program handled by DOC. And there is $15 million over the biennium for forensic diversion – a large increase.

But the reinvestment grants represent the bulk of the new money.

The language in the bill requires that at least 75 percent of the funding awarded must be used to provide evidence-based treatment for mental health and addiction directly to an individual.

"We are hearing so many different things about what’s happening that I don’t really know," said Kim Churchward, executive director of Allen County Community Corrections. The program focuses on electronic monitoring.

She is concerned that the 75 percent requirement is too high. Allen County has its own certified mental health and addiction treatment program, she said, and is well-suited to participate in the initiative.

"I can’t say how much we value treatment, but at the end of the day, you still have to supervise the offenders," Churchward said. "Our needs are great."

She added that she is appreciative that lawmakers are having the serious discussion, but "we are cautiously concerned."

Similar sentiments were echoed last week in a committee hearing on House Bill 1006.

There are 1,300 probation officers around the state supervising 140,000 offenders. And caseloads are swelling.

Linda Brady, president of the Probation Officers Professional Association of Indiana, said at least 133 new probation officers will be needed statewide.

And she noted that individual counties have different top needs. She said some areas identify addiction and mental health as the most important, but there are others that would rather focus on education or employment programs.

Brady asked that the 75 percent treatment requirement be removed or at least lowered to give counties more flexibility.

"Some counties are drowning," she said. "They need money to supervise new offenders."

And the projections are still elastic. Lawmakers recently tweaked language in House Bill 1006 to prohibit any Level 6 offenders – the lowest-level felony – from being sent to DOC starting Jan. 1.

Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said that is one way to incentivize local communities to embrace new programming options – because there isn’t room for those offenders in jails, either.

He is authoring a companion piece – House Bill 1304 – that gives judges and prosecutors more discretion to suspend prison time if offenders are in a substance abuse treatment program.

A prosecutor can also require someone in a diversion program to receive mental health treatment, and the bill allows local diversion and deferral fees to be used for such programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

A handful of other pieces of legislation also directly or tangentially relate to the effort.

"There are numerous different bills out there, all seeking to get to the same result. We’ve got to make sure we get all of them right," McMillin said. "If one of the gears doesn’t mesh with another gear, then the engine doesn’t run as smoothly as it could."

He stressed that increased technology can help some local communities. He pointed specifically to a program in Dearborn County where offenders on electronic monitoring have an ankle bracelet and a two-way tablet/phone. Allen County also has a related pilot.

This allows probation officers to have direct video conversations and contacts throughout the day with the offender. Drug tests can be done with pupil dilations or by using a stick that shows the presence of substances when placed on the tongue. Or 10 offenders can be up at one time in a joint counseling session. The probation officer even has access to the offenders’ work schedules and can see through GPS whether they are running late.

McMillin said the cost is $18 per day – a $40 savings from jail costs.

"It’s tremendous," he said. "What we’re talking about is light-years ahead of where most counties are."

nkelly@jg.net