MARK KIESLING: NWI, state look to deal with packed jail problem

2012-11-25T00:00:00Z 2012-12-20T21:25:34Z MARK KIESLING: NWI, state look to deal with packed jail problem nwitimes.com
November 25, 2012 12:00 am

We can get tougher on criminals, or we can get smarter in the way with which we deal with them.

It looks like the Legislature is prepared to tackle a "justice system" that may be so in name only.

The Indiana Criminal Code evaluation Commission approved last month a 382-page sweeping revision of the state's current four-tier charging system and replacing it will a six-level system with added flexibility for judges.

This will almost certainly, if approved, help counties like Lake, Porter and LaPorte from having to face yet another jail overcrowding scenario.

The three, large counties each, have been sending fewer inmates to the Indiana Department of Correction.

"We have a very vibrant community corrections system in Porter County," Porter Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper said.

Ditto that for Lake County, which has not only a community corrections system but a work-release program for low-level offenders.

Porter County Sheriff Dave Lain said he'd like to see a similar system in his county.

"But there's a cost-effective downside to work-release," Lain said recently. "It's been discussed for years, and you have to either build or occupy an existing building, and staff it."

But the commission has recommended doing away with punitive “drug-free” zones that enhance sentences.

The commission recommended lower penalties for some drug and theft crimes and potentially more prison time for the worst sex and violent offenders.

That was in 2009.

Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, is Northwest Indiana's representative on the panel that also includes defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges and academics.

In the draft of the proposed legislation approved by the commission Wednesday, there are provisions to provide more state dollars to local communities, including more money for community-based corrections and more money to counties for probation services.

State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, and former commission chair, told the Terre Haute Tribune-Star even more dollars are going to be needed to make a key piece of the proposed criminal code overhaul work.

This, he said, is the piece that would divert more low-level drug offenders into community-based treatment programs along the lines of those already in place in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

“I’m not interested in warehousing people in local jails rather than warehousing them in the DOC,” Pierce said.

Our local officials can give a big "Amen" to that.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at mark.kielsing@nwi.com or (219) 933-4170.

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