Sweeping changes proposed for Indiana's criminal sentencing system won the endorsement Wednesday of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who said that if lawmakers enact the changes they would hold down the state's ballooning prison population and save taxpayer money by reducing the need for more prisons.
Daniels said he "strongly" endorses the changes called for in a new report, including giving judges more leeway to sentence people convicted of lesser felonies to community corrections or treatment programs to help free up prison space for the state's worst offenders. State lawmakers would have to approve any such changes.
Indiana's inmate population soared 41 percent — a rate more than three times faster than adjacent states — and its correction-related costs grew around $100 million, to about $600 million, between 2000 and 2008, according to the state-commissioned report by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
That review found that last year, Indiana had the nation's fastest growing prison population, with nonviolent theft and drug offenders accounting for about 55 percent of the state's overall increase in prison admissions.
Without legislative action, the report that's the first of its kind since 1976 concludes that Indiana's prison population will rise to nearly 35,000 by 2017.
Daniels said enacting the report's recommendations would hold the inmate population to the current number of about 29,000 over the next seven years and save the state about $1.2 billion in correction expenses that would otherwise go toward new prisons.
He said the Indiana Department of Correction has seen success reducing the annual cost of housing the state's inmates, but lawmakers need to act to hold down future costs and the growth of Indiana's inmate population.
"The only way to continue protecting Hoosiers and making Indiana safer and doing that in a way that also protects Indiana taxpayers I believe is to embrace this package of reform," Daniels said at a news conference in his Statehouse office that included lawmakers.
The report's recommendations include revising drug and theft sentencing laws, giving judges more flexibility to sentence people convicted of lesser felony offenses and boosting supervision of inmates in community corrections programs.
The findings also call for increasing access to community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment — services that could keep former inmates from ending up back in prison, said Richard Jerome, the manager of the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project.
"The focus is not just on sentencing but to make sure those offenders who are on probation and parole are staying on the straight and narrow by using better supervision and oversight so that we don't have that revolving door of folks coming back to state prison," he said.
The review, which was aided by a 14-member steering committee that included legislators, judges, police officials and prosecutors, found that Indiana's theft and drug penalties are far more severe than other states.
Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker said the report's suggested changes would relax many of the constraints judges face with sentencing options under current state law.
"What this does is it gives them more sentencing options in terms of community corrections and other options available. No system is perfect but our judges have to work within that framework," he said.
The report found that more than 8,000 offenders released from state prisons in 2009 served less than 180 days.
Giving judges the option of sentencing more offenders convicted of relatively minor offenses to community corrections would open prison space for more dangerous criminals and reduce taxpayers' burden, said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington.
The report and its recommendations will be presented Thursday to the state's Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, which will be asked to endorse it, said Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville.
"We think we'll get it and then we'll move on to legislation," he said.
Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said the Pew Center recommendations will be included in bills to be introduced in both the Indiana House and Senate when lawmakers return to work next month.
Steele, the chairman of the Senate Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters Committee, said he hopes one of the bills makes it through the General Assembly by the time lawmakers end their session.