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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, December 01, 2015 9:13 pm

Cost of punishment

Amid other demands the legislature will be juggling next month is a request from the Indiana Department of Correction for money to build and operate new prison cells.

Without those cell units, department officials told legislators recently, the state will run out of beds for male inmates in about two years.

This is not only dismaying but surprising.

An overhaul of Indiana’s criminal code that took effect earlier this year will be sending many nonviolent felony offenders back to the state’s county jails to serve their sentences. That was supposed to reduce the pressure on state facilities, though the argument over how our counties will be able to afford to keep the added inmates is just beginning.

At a recent presentation for legislators, Allen County officials made it clear that they expect some help from the state. As the effects of the code’s overhaul make their way through the sentencing system, the county expects to see a sharp rise in its jail population.

Beth Lock, the county’s governmental affairs director, told legislators she expects the jail to average 135 prisoners a day by next summer. There are ways to expand the county’s capacity – finishing the jail’s fourth floor, to add 60 to 70 beds, and building a site for the work-release program. But those changes could cost as much as $4 million.

As The Journal Gazette’s Dave Gong reported, Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, told the group Allen would be one of a long line of counties seeking help with the new sentencing situation.

"Everybody is going to have a pinch," Leonard said. "Everybody comes for money, and our job is to prioritize those things and do the best we can at doling out the money and not hurt anybody in the process."

Not entirely encouraging words. And as the legislature prepares to juggle the needs of Indiana’s county jails, it also has to find a way to fund $50 million worth of new state prison cells.

One reason is that the criminal code revisions, in addition to sending more prisoners back to the county, tightened the credit-for-time-served formula for other types of prisoners, keeping them in state prisons longer. It’s not yet clear exactly how much more pressure that will put on the prison system, but DOC officials believe they would have had to increase capacity soon anyway.

Indiana’s prison population numbered 6,281 in 1980. At the end of 2013, it was 29,377. That’s more than 4½ times as many prisoners.

What did we get for that giant increase in prisoners? The crime rate has dropped somewhat during the intervening years, and the state’s population has gone up by a little more than 15 percent. But do Hoosiers feel 4½ times safer than they did in 1980?

Certainly Indiana is not out of step with the rest of the country. There are 2.2 million men and women imprisoned in the United States, the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. Each state will have to do more if that’s to change, and Indiana’s criminal code revision was a step in the right direction. But as the legislature scrambles to cover the latest local and statewide costs of the upward spiral of incarcerations, we need to ask ourselves: Where does all this end?