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Prison study recommendations endorsed by Indiana governor

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The state of Indiana is facing a crime conundrum: The prison population is growing at the same time that state-wide crime rates are dropping. That’s the gist of a new report Gov. Mitch Daniels hopes will persuade legislators and judges to take a new approach to crime.

Two nonprofit groups, the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, authored the report. Both are based in Washington, D.C.

The groups determined Indiana’s current prison population stands at 29,000, about 40 percent higher than a decade ago.That growth rate is three times faster than neighboring states’. But while Indiana’s incarceration rates jumped, state crime rates have declined.

What’s behind the disparity?

The groups’ review of Indiana’s prison system suggests it’s because more people are being sentenced for property and drug offenses. If left unchecked the state’s prison population could rise to 35,000 in just seven years. Daniels and other state officials say Indiana must get a handle on this or face major costs for housing criminals in the near future. Daniels is endorsing recommendations made by both the Pew Center and the CSG Justice Center to reduce the state’s prison population.

“Every significant aspect of law enforcement and criminal justice has been brought together in this project,” Daniels said at a press conference in Indianapolis Wednesday. Daniels said the state should do a better job at determining who should go to prison and who shouldn’t. He said decreasing the number of convicted criminals will reduce the cost of building prisons and housing prisoners.

“We have hoped for a package of changes that will bring more certain and firm punishments to the worst offenders in Indiana, more sensible, smarter incarcerations for those who pose much less of a danger to Hoosiers,” Daniels said. “And, as a byproduct of that, grace to taxpayers in the form of lower costs in the years ahead.”

The report by the Pew Center and CSG Justice Center will be released Thursday and will include three proposed categories of policy change:

  • Improvements to sentencing guidelines. This will ensure prison space for the worst offenders by creating a more precise set of drug and theft sentencing laws. Also, the state should provide judges with more sentencing options for those convicted of less serious felony offenses.
  • Improvements in community supervision programs such as work release, which allows an convict to serve a sentence at a housing facility and continue to attend work.
  • Broader access to community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment. The reports authors say this will reduce recidivism rates.

Indiana officials predict these changes could result in a savings of more than a billion dollars.

“State leaders have produced a bipartisan, data-driven policy framework that gives Indiana a real chance to achieve needed cost savings while protecting public safety and holding offenders accountable,” said Richard Jennings, manager of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Projects.

Any changes to Indiana’s sentencing guidelines and criminal code will require approval by Indiana’s Republican-controlled state legislature.

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