The Indiana General Assembly has been working on revamping the criminal code for more than a year. Many believe that we are putting too many people in jail who don’t need to be there: low-level, nonviolent offenders, mostly related to drugs.
Now that a bill has been crafted, Gov. Mike Pence and his Department of Correction deputy commissioner Randy Koester are coming out against the bill, saying it would nearly double the inmate population in the next decade.
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency conducted a study about the proposed law and found that even though the inmate population would have a small increase in the next few years — from the current 28,000 to 30,000 — the total would eventually fall and not even come close to the DOC’s estimate of 48,000.
Let’s see if we understand the DOC’s position: By reforming the criminal code to keep low-level offenders out of the prison system, the inmate population will rise by 20,000 in the next 10 years. Well, it certainly doesn’t pass the logic test so let’s ask Koester why he says that. When the legislative committee did just that, Koester said he didn’t have the information with him.
Seriously? He expects to go unprepared into a committee meeting, have no data to back up his claims and expect to be taken seriously. State Sen. Brent Steele called Koester’s claim “ninja smoke.” That’s one way of putting it.
Despite the new opposition, Steele and his House co-author, Rep. Greg Steuerwald, both Republicans, plan on keeping the bill alive.
The point is, why did the governor and Koester take so long to object to this bill, which also stiffens some sentences for violent crimes? Your guess is as good as ours. But here are a couple of policy points to keep in mind.
Republicans are normally tough on crime: Do the crime and do the time, three strikes and you’re out, etc. But Republicans are understanding the negative aspects of locking up nonviolent offenders. Besides wasted lives, the cost is enormous, and a state struggling with its budget needs to look at areas to cut.
A fracturing in the Republican Party seems evident during this session, first with the Pence-proposed 10 percent tax cut and now with criminal code reform. There seems to be a divide between Republicans who are fiscally conscious (supporters of the criminal code bill and opponents of the tax cut) and those who think the money is in seemingly endless supply (Pence and his legislator allies).
Another possibility could be looking ahead to more privatization of state prisons, a program started under Mitch Daniels. In order for private companies to run prisons and make a profit, they must keep an endless supply of inmates in which to bill the state. Low-level offenders or violent criminals, the company doesn’t care because each body means money. The fewer bodies — due to criminal code reform — the less money.
But these are speculative reasons. The fact is, criminal code reform makes a lot of sense. The U.S.’s dubious distinction of being the world’s top incarcerator is something that cries out for reform. In the big picture, Indiana’s attempt at reform is just a ripple. Let’s hope it spreads.
In the big picture, Indiana’s attempt at criminal code reform is just a ripple. Let’s hope it spreads.