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December 14, 2010

Some counties try to determine who will break law again

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mitch Daniels put sentencing reform on his legislative agenda for the new year, but in many counties throughout the state, change is already under way.

Since late summer, judges and probation officers have been undergoing training in the use of a new “risk assessment” tool that predicts how likely an offender is to fail on probation or parole.

The goal: To keep low-risk offenders out of the high-cost state prison system.

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, working with courts throughout the state to implement the training, said it’s part of an overall reform effort to make criminal sentences better match the nature of the offense and the offender.

“Our most expensive asset is a prison bed,” said Shepard. “We need to keep those for our most dangerous criminals.”

Not doing so is costing Indiana taxpayers a lot of money. Over the last 30 years, as Indiana’s prison population escalated, the Indiana Department of Correction’s biennial budget has jumped from $142 million in 1979-1980 to $1.36 billion for 2009-2010.

A report from the Pew Center for the States, slated to be released today, is expected to link the rise to a “tough on crime” attitude by lawmakers, judges and prosecutors that put more people behind state prison bars than needed to be there.

The Pew Center report is also expected to offer a wide range of solutions. Among them is the use of “evidence-based” sentencing procedures that filter out offenders best served by community-based corrections programs that cost significantly less than incarceration. Past studies by the Pew Center have found that when they have proper resources and are managed well, those community-based programs cut recidivism by as much as 30 percent.

Don Travis, chief probation officer in Howard County and president of the Probation Officers Professional Association of Indiana, said identifying offenders who can benefit most from community-based corrections isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

“I think there is a realization that we’ve got to do a better job at this and that, in doing so, it’ll be better for public safety and more cost effective.”

Administered by probation officers, the risk assessment tool includes 50-plus questions that result in answers that can be scored to determine risk of re-offending. The questions cover both actions and attitudes and include queries about criminal history, substance abuse and family support.

The practice of risk assessment isn’t new, but Travis said the new risk assessment tool that court personnel are now being trained in offers more and better detail. That means judges have more information to help guide their sentencing decisions.

How much discretion Indiana lawmakers will allow judges to have in making those decisions remains to be seen. Sentencing reform will likely mean the Legislature will have to roll back some laws that stiffened prison terms and limited judicial discretion.

State Rep. Wes Culver, a conservative Republican from Goshen, said his colleagues are receptive to the idea, given the state’s budgetary constraints, including a projected $1 billion deficit.

“Sentencing reform used to be liberal issue,” Culver said. “Now it’s a fiscal issue. We can’t afford not to do sentencing reform.”

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