There never seems to be enough money for Indiana's needs. Preschool, foster-care reimbursements, teacher salaries, public health spending, mental health treatment – the list goes on and on.
But what if Indiana could divert some of the money it's spending on its expanding incarceration systems to meet the state's other priorities?
Nationally, prison and jail populations are dropping. Indiana is going in the other direction. Reversing that costly course should not mean putting dangerous criminals on the street. It may require rethinking some aspects of how Indiana's penal system operates.
A major overhaul of the criminal code a few years ago reduced the state's prison population for a while by sending nonviolent felons to county jails. But as the accompanying graph based on Indiana Department of Correction data shows, the overall number of those incarcerated in jails and prisons has continued to grow, and since 2017 the number of prison inmates has been on the upswing again.
Why didn't criminal-code reform have a more lasting impact? In part, because the legislature also increased sentences for serious felonies. It's an easy way for politicians to show they're “tough” on crime. Though longer sentences may be necessary to protect society from some criminals, critics say they are applied too widely and their deterrent value is overrated. The Sentencing Project cites “strong criminological evidence that lengthy prison terms are counterproductive for public safety as they result in incarceration of individuals long past the time that they have 'aged out' of the high crime years, thereby diverting resources from more promising crime reduction initiatives.”
Now, fewer people are going to prison, but because more people are staying there longer, the state's prisons may soon be at capacity again. And as more of those convicted of low-level felonies are diverted to jail, many local facilities across the state, including Allen County's, are feeling the strain as well. Three-fourths of the state's county jails are at or beyond capacity, according to a 2018 report by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute cited by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
Of course, more inmates and more prisoners increase costs at both the county and state levels. A small increase this year in the per diems paid to counties for absorbing all those inmates who previously would have been housed in state prisons falls far short of compensating the state's larger counties. And the cost of prisons continues to rise: This spring, the legislature increased the Department of Correction's budget by $42.2 million over the next two fiscal years.
If lawmakers look past the prison-vs.-jail shell game, they will find some practical suggestions to control penal costs. Recent analyses by the Council of State Government Justice Center and the ACLU suggest a major component of Indiana's growing prison problem could be related to its probation and parole system.
“On any given day in Indiana,” the council reported, “7,913 people are incarcerated as a result of supervision violations at an annual cost to the state of $153 million.”
Some states, reports Indiana Legislative Insight, have attempted to reduce incarcerations for minor supervisory probation or parole violations by providing more treatment for those with mental illness or substance abuse and revamping supervisory systems to reduce the number of technical violations.
The ACLU report released in May makes other suggestions, including cutting sentence provisions for some crimes, expanding the role of public defenders, reforming the bail system, providing alternatives to long sentences for youth offenders and refraining from expanding the criminal code. Indiana could ease pressure on its county jails, reduce its prison population by as much as 50% and save the state more than $541 million by 2025 if such changes were implemented, the report says.
Of course, it's easier to predict good results than to achieve them. As the legislature demonstrated with the reforms of 2013-15, strategies to reduce the prison population are fraught with unintended consequences. And in a state with a strong law-and-order tradition, any such bold reforms would have to be led by conservatives.
But strategies to reduce the number of people behind bars have worked in other states. If new approaches could ease the ever-heavier burdens of Indiana's penal system, we should hear them out. There are better things that could be done with some of that money.
To learn more
To read the ACLU Blueprint for Smart Justice Indiana, go to 50stateblueprint.aclu.org/assets/reports/SJ-Blueprint-IN.pdf.
To read the the Council of State Governments Justice Center report on the impact of parole and probation violations on prison systems in Indiana and other states, go to csgjusticecenter.org/confinedandcostly/.
The Sentencing Project offers an interesting examination of the problems created by too many long prison sentences at sentencingproject.org/publications/long-term-sentences-time-reconsider-scale-punishment/.
The Vera Institute of Justice offers an analysis of one of those problems at vera.org/newsroom/new-report-finds-that-states-miss-opportunities-to-release-aging-prisoners.