By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
If the criminal code reform bill passes through the Indiana General Assembly, it’ll likely be missing a critical element: The money to make it work.
One of the bill’s original goals was to divert low-level, nonviolent offenders out of state prisons, where the worst offenders belong, and into community-based programs proven to reduce recidivism.
But with just days to go before the session’s end, nowhere in the legislation or the $30 billion budget bill are the dollars for local jails and community correction facilities to run the drug rehabilitation programs that criminal justice experts say are needed to make a real dent in crime.
It’s as if lawmakers have forgotten what started the rewrite of the state’s criminal code three years ago by a commission the Legislature appointed: Fears that our addiction to incarceration was fiscally unsustainable.
So here’s a brief reminder: In the first decade of the 21st century, the number of people living in Indiana grew 6.6 percent. Over that same decade, the number of people living in our prisons went up by 47 percent, driving prison spending up by 37 percent. The biggest increase was in low-level drug and theft offenders, many of whom were rotating through the justice system.
Here’s what else we know: As in other states across the nation, a majority of our current prison inmates — maybe more than 75 percent — were sentenced for some drug-related crime. They were selling drugs, stealing to buy drugs, or committing other crimes while on drugs or to acquire drugs.
Republican state Sen. Randy Head of Logansport has been tough on the criminal code reform bill, concerned it was a little too soft on some crimes. The former deputy prosecutor succeeded in amending it to beef back up some penalties, which is one reason why the bill went into last-ditch negotiations between its House and Senate authors.
Now one of his concerns is that bill, if it does get passed and signed into law, will fail if there’s no money for community-based drug treatment programs.
“Nothing we do is going to have its maximum effect unless we deal with addicts,” Head said. “There is a certain level of people who are going to commit crimes to fuel their addiction. They’re going to get caught, they’re going to go to prison, they’re going to get out, and they’re going to do it again regardless what the sentences are. Until we can correct that, we’re going to have a problem on our hands, and it’s going to be costly.”
So why, in a $30 billion budget bill that includes a mix of $500 million in tax cuts and leaves intact a hefty surplus, is there no money to invest in what Head and others call crime prevention?
His answer: There’s “no political will to spend the money.”
I get it. Earmarking hard-earned Hoosier taxpayers’ dollars for law-breaking drug addicts doesn’t charm the voters like a tax cut does.
But other fiscally conservative states are doing it. Among them is West Virginia. The Legislature there just passed a bill that mandates every county has a drug court program — like those in about one-third of Indiana’s 92 counties — which offer nonviolent offenders drug treatment and testing as an alternative to prison. And the legislation adds $25 million in state funding for local communities to provide increased supervision and drug treatment for recently released inmates.
It’s not the perfect bill — that’s not how the legislative process works. But it seems a step closer to the often-stated goal of criminal code reformers here in Indiana who’ve promised to move the state from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.