EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD: Porter County is well positioned for new sentencing guidelines

2013-06-02T00:00:00Z EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD: Porter County is well positioned for new sentencing guidelinesBy Mary Harper nwitimes.com
June 02, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The words "progressive" and "local government" are often hard to find in the same sentence. A portion of our population has a dislike for one or the other of those words. Some have no use for either of them. Yet, it is important to point out that the use of those two words in the same sentence will not always constitute an oxymoron.

I write about how both come into play in a positive way in Porter County.

House Bill 1006 is 2013 legislation that contains vast revisions of the Indiana Criminal Code. In Porter County, through joint participation of our nonprofit community correctional program, PACT Inc., the courts, and local governmental decision makers, we have for years addressed what the new bill seeks to facilitate.

While criticized by many, the new law will likely allow us to accelerate our progress in using community-based sentencing options for low-level felony offenders who commit nonviolent crimes.

The county jail is a frequently used community-based sentencing option. A second community sentencing option would be county-based community corrections. This includes requirements such as electronic monitoring, day reporting, substance abuse programming, crime-specific classes, as in those for domestic batterers, and other options designed to address the criminal habits and practices of offenders. Not all counties have well-developed community corrections programs.

In Porter County, even prior to enactment of HB 1006, significant work was done to expand community corrections options and program capacity. Based on compliance rates and value, community-based sentencing, when appropriate and safe, makes perfect sense.

In 2012, PACT’s day reporting program had an 81 percent successful completion rate, representing close to 42,900 days of work and programming done with 140 men and 64 women. This was not paid for by local tax dollars. If you convert those days to dollars at the rate of $35, which is a low estimate of the daily cost for incarceration in the Porter County Jail, the savings in local tax dollars equals $1.5 million. Other PACT programs provide similar significant tax savings.

Folks from a number of counties in Indiana are very apprehensive about the forthcoming changes in the law, which locals have been told will provide for keeping nonviolent felony offenders in local correctional options. If so, they likely have been sending a lot of nonviolent felony offenders to the prison system. That means they are now short on adequate community-based options to handle the anticipated increase in the number of cases that will be required by law to use community-based sentencing instead of sentences to the state prison system.

Porter County officials continue to look toward addressing our local correctional capacity. Recently, county government officials supported an effort to acquire more space for PACT. As a not-for-profit entity, PACT did not have available the funding to buy a building with enough space to house its existing programs and to add new programming designed to address the very needy population of offenders sent to them by the courts.

Expansion of our community corrections capacity was supported across government systems by the Porter County Board of Commissioners, the Porter County Council and our judges. The results position Porter County well to handle the anticipated significant increase in the need for non-incarceration-based community corrections services.

Our other local option for adult corrections is the Porter County Jail. I sentence many felons. The vast majority are repeat offenders. Some have multiple criminal cases pending at the same time.

This coming Tuesday, I have sentencing hearings set for a group of inmates that average 15 prior arrests per person. Some have as many as eight prior felony convictions. A county jail with enough space for this type of inmate population is essential. Ours was designed and built just over a decade ago.

As with community corrections, through foresight and planning that spanned all branches of local government, a substantial foundation has been laid. The need to address increased local correctional capacity at the Porter County Jail is made more palatable by the existence of a building whose footprint was adequately designed by planners a dozen years ago.

Mary Harper is Porter Circuit Court judge. The opinions are the writer's.

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