DOUG ROSS: Prisons are for correction, not just punishment

2011-08-30T00:00:00Z 2011-08-31T10:35:06Z DOUG ROSS: Prisons are for correction, not just punishmentBy Doug Ross doug.ross@nwi.com, (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 nwitimes.com

If you think sentencing reform is all about making the punishment fit the crime, you're not quite right. It's about making sure the criminal changes bad behavior, too.

This nugget came from a conversation between The Times Editorial Board and Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Bruce Lemmon. Think about that agency's name. It says nothing about punishment.

At a time when the prison system is at capacity, and with the cost of building a new facility at a minimum of $150 million, you might think the state's top prison official would be urging judges, prosecutors and lawmakers to start reducing sentences.

Perhaps, but don't reduce them to so short a term that behavior modification cannot occur, Lemmon said.

"If we're just going to be a warehouse, we're not going to solve the problem," he said.

In Indiana, as is typical elsewhere across the United States, about 85 percent of inmates have substance abuse problems. Their particular crime might not be for possessing or selling drugs, or even driving under the influence, but substance abuse can fuel everything from burglary to violent crimes.

A short sentence of three to four months just isn't long enough for treatment to occur, Lemmon said.

State prison officials want to find out why a prisoner committed the crime for which he or she was sentenced so they can try to prevent that person from getting in the same kind of trouble. There are separate programs for sex offenders, meth addicts, alcoholics and others.

With a three-year recidivism rate of about 38 percent, Indiana needs to change behavior to break the cycle of incarceration. Some of the programs are succeeding in reducing that rate. For addicts, the recidivism rate is generally higher.

Treatment programs help keep prisons safer, too.

"The more you keep offenders engaged during the day, the better off you're going to be," Lemmon said.

The legislative study committee working on sentencing reform needs to keep this in mind as it completes its review. The legislators also must resist the temptation in the future to enhance penalties in well-intentioned but misguided attempts to crack down on crime -- or to swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that actual behavior modification doesn't occur.

"We're not talking about being soft on crime; we're talking about being smart on crime," Lemmon said.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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