This Column is in response to the Indianapolis Star's article "Prosecutors Group Assails to Cut Prison Sentences" by Heather Gillers on January 19, 2011.
I write with great concern and frustration over some county prosecutors and their unwillingness to be a part of the solution and not a roadblock when it comes to the Justice Reinvestment/Smart Sentencing legislation and the three year project of the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission. Indiana's criminal justice system cannot stand still.
The facts are that Indiana's incarceration rate over the last ten years is three times greater than other states in our region. Most of our state prisoners are incarcerated for Class D felonies-the lowest felony. Indiana is the only state in which all theft-related crimes are classified as a felony. Some of the prosecutors have expressed concern over the graduated penalties. Under the proposed sentencing guideline changes, we would distinguish between someone who has stolen an item under $100 versus someone who has stolen an item over $50,000. We would also differentiate amounts under the illegal drug possession statutes.
The majority of these individuals who are in Indiana prisons are incarcerated for less than a year, and for minor drug and theft offenses. This legislation does not let the least violent class of offenders off the hook-it puts them where we have a better chance of success in rehabilitating them and hopefully positioning them to be a productive member of society.
If we continue on this course, we will need to collect another $1.2 billion in new taxes from our citizens to house minor criminals. We need to use our criminal justice dollars in a smarter fashion, and one of the most significant ways to do that is by incarcerating the most violent and harmful offenders.
I do not believe it is realistic or productive to continue with our current sentence structure. I also do not believe that thoughtful prosecutors and citizens would support a tax increase or divert our financial resources from education, health care and other essential services when we have this opportunity to restructure who we put in prison and for how long. I see no evidence that the critics can pay for their non-solutions. The current proposal is not "soft on crime," but instead is "smart on sentencing."
Indiana is not a pioneer in this legislation. Other states such as Kansas and Texas, have found the political will to adopt such legislation with successful results.
The bottom line is that legislators want to work with prosecutors for public safety - and I think it can be done. But we must all work together within the limited resources available. It's time to be smart about sentencing and smart about how our tax dollars are used.
Ralph M. Foley
Criminal Code Evaluation Commission Member
Author of the House Bill on Justice Reinvestment/Smart Sentencing (House Bill 1530)