A New Push for Sentencing Reform in Indiana

An Indiana legislative committee has unanimously approved a bill that would reform criminal sentencing in that state.

With a 13-0 vote, the bill moved out of the House Courts and Criminal Committee and to the full House for consideration. The legislation would:

–Permit work release and alternative sentencing for low-risk offenders, allowing Indiana to prioritize prison beds for dangerous offenders, while cutting unnecessary prison expenditures;

–Sort the current four-tier system of felonies into a new six-tier system, which will permit tailored sentencing that can more accurately and appropriately hold offenders accountable;

–Require the worst offenders in Indiana prisons to serve more of their sentences behind bars.

This is Indiana’s second attempt at sentencing reform after an effort failed in the last legislative session.

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The HOPE Court Model is Spreading

Right on Crime has previously discussed Fort Worth’s adoption of the HOPE Court model. HOPE is a Hawaii program centered on immediate—and tough—sanctions for probation violations, rather than far-off court dates and mere slaps on the wrist. Now, more probation departments are catching on, and the trend—and successes—are spreading further across the United States.

Seattle is piloting a new HOPE-based model after collaboration between the city council, the mayor, and the police chief produced an agreement to give the program a shot. The initial program has resulted in reduced drug use, incarceration, and criminal activity, according to city officials. So far, 35 offenders on community supervision are subject to frequent, unannounced drug tests, and they can receive short jail stays—that same day—for a violating conditions.

Moreover, a chief probation officer and a Republican state representative, Ralph Foley, are working to implement the HOPE model in select counties in Indiana too.

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Daily Beast Highlights Right On Crime’s Efforts

Last week, The Daily Beast published an article highlighting the recent shift in criminal justice policy among conservatives, pointing out several successful initiatives including Right On Crime.  The story contains a number of anecdotes about GOP lawmakers shifting gears to adopt a modern view on criminal policy, and it explains why these new ideas are working.

Take, for example, Texas Representative Jerry Madden.  Looking back, Madden saw that his party’s “tough on crime” policies had done much more harm than good for public safety, and they had wasted countless taxpayer dollars.  In the Daily Beast article, Madden explains that he is an engineer by training, and he saw the prison problem as a bursting pipe: “There seemed to be two answers to this from an engineering standpoint… let ’em out the door faster, or slow ’em down coming in.”  He teamed up with Senate Democrat John Whitmire, author of Texas’s famously tough penal code, to tackle the problem.  Since 2005, the criminal reform duo’s efforts have saved the state $2 billion, reduced the violent and nonviolent crime rates, and reduced recidivism.

Consider also Mitch Daniels – the Indiana governor who, according to the Daily Beast, gets his haircuts from an ex-con.  He emphasizes that prisons cost $55 per day but community treatment costs between $10 and $30.  From his standpoint, a smart on crime approach makes perfect fiscal sense.  But other conservatives such as Pat Nolan see it as a moral victory “to overcome evil with good.”

KOGO San Diego’s LaDona Harvey interviewed Right On Crime leader Vikrant P. Reddy about the article.  When asked why the Republican Party has shifted, Reddy had this to say:

“We’ve got a pendulum.  Things ebb and flow from one end to the other, and we’re at a point where we really feel like we’ve gone so hard and so harsh with these sentences that they’re counterproductive – and those came in response to inadequate sentencing in the sixties when we had ideas about rehabilitation ‘saving’ everyone.  We were too far left, and now the Republicans have taken us too far to the right and it’s time to settle in the middle.

“Republicans have come to realize that our prisons are full of people who aren’t violent criminals…they need to be punished, but we have to think seriously about what the punishments are, and whether lengthy sentences actually help these people is very questionable.  People come to prison and spend time with murderers and rapists, and come out worse than they started.”

Read the full article on The Daily Beast’s website.

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Blow-up Bandit Faces Felony Charges

Last month, Right On Crime highlighted the story of Tyell Morton, an Indiana high school student who placed an inflatable blow-up doll in the women’s restroom as a senior prank.  Suspecting that he was carrying explosives, authorities placed the school on lockdown and arrested the 18-year-old.

According to a recent AP article, Morton has been charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, and institutional criminal mischief, a felony that carries a potential eight years in prison and will stay on his record for the rest of his life.  The Rush County Prosecutor Philip Caviness claims that he does not intend to seek prison time for Morton, but said that he’s “pretty comfortable with the charges that we’ve filed.”  He feels that school administrators and local law enforcement acted appropriately with regards to the situation, and continues to claim that such brutal measures are necessary in the “post-Columbine world.”

But once it was discovered that Morton had not placed explosives in the school, but an inflatable blow-up doll, was it really necessary to brand him as a felon for the rest of his life?  George Washington University’s Professor Jonathan Turley asks: “[W]hat type of society we are creating when our children have to fear that a prank could lead them to jail for almost a decade.  What type of citizens are we creating who fear the arbitrary use of criminal charges by their government?”  Morton remains incarcerated in a county jail, awaiting sentencing.

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Blow Up Doll Leads to Arrest and Possible Prison Time

Senior pranks.  The thought conjures up memories of water balloons, bathroom sabotage operations, and other innocuous (albeit idiotic) activities.  Above the Law recently highlighted the story (potentially NSFW) of Tyell Morton, a high school senior from Indiana, who decided to participate in a senior prank which may now land him in prison.  Security observed Morton enter the school building concealing a package and later departing the building without it.  Worried that the package contained explosives, the school was evacuated and Morton was arrested.  The package did not contain a bomb, but an inflatable sex doll.

Morton has been charged with felony criminal mischief, which carries a maximum sentence of eight years.  What’s worse?  Prosecutors are taking the “terroristic threat” very seriously, claiming they have no choice in the “post-Columbine world.”  This hardly seems like a sensible response.  Schools must certainly treat a potentially dangerous situation seriously.  Once it is determined, however, that there was no genuine danger to anyone’s safety, surely there can be no reasonable ground upon which incarceration can be justified.

It may be perfectly reasonable to punish Morton at school – and perhaps even to require that he apologize and help pay back any expenses that the school incurred, but can Morton  really be given a multiple year prison sentence for this?  Here we have, as Above The Law put it, “a teen acting like a teen while the adults act like children.”

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Mitch Daniels Blogs about Criminal Justice Reform at The Corner

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels took some time yesterday to do a little blogging.  He put up a post at The Corner — National Review’s widely-read blog — about his conservative criminal justice reform efforts in Indianapolis.  Take a look:

Ordinarily, a kind mention in the New York Times — there have actually been a few, lately — sends me back for a serious rethink of whatever action or stance gave rise to the compliment. But this week’s support for our proposed criminal justice reforms in Indiana will engender no second thoughts, because the Times has it right — we can be a lot smarter about our incarceration policies.

During my transition to service in December 2004, I was told that we would need to build at least one new prison a year starting immediately. I said, “Uh, the state’s broke. I think we’ll need to find an alternative.” Six years later, we are housing 38 percent more prisoners without having built one additional cell. At a per day cost that is down around 30 percent, by the way. But even we are out of capacity utilization ideas.

Enter our friends from the Council on State Governments and the Pew Foundation. Their analysis shows that we are imprisoning, in our most expensive spaces, more people for relatively minor, non-violent offenses, like low-level property and drug violations, than most other states. Some of our guests are not with the state corrections system long enough for any rehabilitation, substance-abuse counseling, or job training to take place. They’re only with us, as my guys say, “long enough to study under some real criminals.”

If we can get our legislature to go along, we will soon be matching the place of incarceration more closely to the offender’s true danger to society, reducing recidivism and saving a bundle of money on new prisons we don’t have to build and staff. We’ll reinvest a small fraction of the savings into better community corrections and rehab services. And, as the researchers told us, “You’ll still be five times tougher on criminals than Ohio, just not ten times.”

As the Times editorialists were thinking, “Even a benighted Midwestern Republican stumbles on a good idea once in a while.” Which is approximately what I was thinking about them!

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Indiana Rethinks its Sentencing Policies for Drug and Property Offenses

Some bizarre statistics about Indiana emerged from a joint study that was released last week by the Council of State Governments (CSG) and the Pew Center on the States.  For example, the average sentence in the Hoosier state for many non-violent crimes is 96 months, but the average sentence for sexual assault is only 65 months.  The study, which calculated that Indiana’s prison population has grown by more than 40% in the past 10 years (three times faster than any neighboring state) has received widespread coverage.  CSG and Pew have recommended several ways in which Indiana could reduce its overcrowded prison population and tamp down on costs that are projected to reach $1 billion by 2017.

One of the most significant recommendations in the study is to reform Indiana’s unusual sentencing laws for non-violent offenses.  The essential problem with the laws is that they do not adequately distinguish between differences in severity.  Thus, according to the Indiana Journal Gazette, “Someone who steals a $20 DVD can be charged with the same level of felony as a person who steals thousands of dollars’ worth of items.”  CSG and Pew recommend a system of graduated sentencing and returning some sentencing discretion to judges who are hamstrung by mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

“Every significant aspect of law enforcement and criminal justice has been brought together in this project,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. “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 incarceration for those who pose much less of a danger to Hoosiers and, as a byproduct of that, grace to taxpayers in the form of lower costs in the years ahead. I am thrilled to say that this group has brought about such a product and I am happy to pass it on to the General Assembly with my strongest endorsement.”

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Indiana’s 107 Amendments

According to this article in Business Week, the Indiana Code has been amended 107 times in the past twenty years “to either add new crimes or lengthen the prison sentences of existing crimes.”  For years, it seems that this was simply the norm in Indiana.  In 1997 alone the legislature considered 30 bills to create new crimes and 13 bills to lengthen sentences.  Eric Turner, a Republican representative from Marion, is mentioned in the Business Week article as saying that this was a result of “he and other lawmakers [having] reacted emotionally to crime.”

Indiana spends approximately one million dollars on every 100 inmates — and they have 29,000 adult inmates.  According to the Evansville Courier & Press, “[t]he estimate is that between 2010 and 2017, the prison population will increase 21 percent, from 28,474 to 34,794,” and absorbing this population will cost approximately $1.2 billion.  The costs are growing dramatically in Indiana, but if Rep. Turner is to be believed, it appears that the legislature is finally serious about keeping Indiana safe, but also finding a way to do it cost-effectively.

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