EYE ON THE PIE: Prison reform is off state's radar

August 22, 2005

What do the following cities have in common? Auburn, C r aw f o r d s v i l l e , Greenfield, Griffith, Huntington, Logansport, New Castle, Seymour and Shelbyville. Each has a smaller population than the number of people in Indiana prisons.

The Indiana Department of Correction reports we have more than 19,600 adults in our prisons at an annual cost in excess of $21,500 per prisoner per year, for a total of $420 million.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Indiana's prison population rose between 2000 and 2003 from 335 per 100,000 population (33rd in the nation) to 363 per 100,000 (28th).

While we keep these men and women incarcerated, we sacrifice their productive capabilities. Many of them are in prison because they engaged in drug trafficking. Could their entrepreneurial and organizational skills be turned in other directions?

It is time to rethink how we punish those who violate the law. Despite much reluctance, our sentencing policies need review. Under what circumstances, for what types of crimes, do long sentences make sense? Is putting people in prison the right type of punishment, given today's technology?

We have the technology to limit freedom, to keep people on house arrest. Think Martha Stewart. Would it be better to deny or limit freedom of movement for those who have shown no pattern of violent behavior?

Even in cases where people have been convicted of murder, perhaps the courts need to consider the likelihood of a repetition of the crime and the remedial value of incarceration.

The problem is not that we spend $420 million or more on prisons. That's just $70 per Hoosier per year, which may be too little. The issue is that we have nearly 20,000 adult men and women not contributing to society. Nationwide, there are 1.5 million adults in prison. This is a waste of potentially valuable human resources as workers and as family members.

What if we could cut the prison population in half? That would add approximately 10,000 persons to the Hoosier work force. Work-release programs in Indiana cost $91 per person per day (compared with $59 per prisoner kept behind bars). But are there jobs these prisoners could do that would offset that cost?

Wouldn't expanding work release prepare more convicted persons to be productive members of society when they are finally released? Isn't that what we want?

But what is on the agenda of the Indiana General Assembly? They are in their usual twitter about property taxes, which are a problem only because the legislators have made it a problem by their own inanity and ineptitude over many years. They are posturing about property rights because of the eminent domain decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Our elected solons have a 10-member commission to "educate Indiana residents and the nation about the important role of Indiana in the life of Abraham Lincoln." We also have a Civil War Flag Commission (four legislators).

Then there is the Criminal Law Study Commission, which has no members. The Adult Literacy Coalition also has no members. How are Indiana's values and concerns being addressed within our state government? Are Hoosiers prisoners of indifference?

Since many in the state administration want to make it seem that Indiana is a state with imaginative leadership, shouldn't we seem to be doing something about making our prison populations smaller and our prisoners more productive?

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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