Prosecutors buck effort to trim state prison costs

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Angry prosecutors have derailed a legislative plan to reduce Indiana's corrections costs by shortening some criminal sentences, and now the state seen as a national model for fiscal austerity could be forced to find millions of dollars for new prisons.

The debate pits prosecutors who oppose policies they consider soft on crime against the pressures of a tight state budget. Many other states also are trying to cut their prison costs this year, and Indiana's reversal shows the increasing strains some face after earlier rounds of cutbacks.

Indiana's inmate population grew at the nation's fastest rate in 2010. A bill designed to hold down that population would have put more nonviolent offenders in community-based programs and other settings rather than prison.

Prosecutors have fought back, saying the state, which has amended its criminal code more than 100 times in the past 20 years to get tougher on crime, needs to make sure the worst felons stay in prison longer if lower-level criminals are let out earlier. Their arguments have prevailed, and the bill now calls for most violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

"We're asking for someone who commits murder to be in jail for long time. We don't think that's inappropriate," Dearborn-Ohio County prosecutor Aaron Negangard said.

But Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has pressed for budget cutbacks to deal with reduced tax revenues, said he would veto the tougher new version as too costly. Further legislative action has been delayed by a boycott of Democrats that has prevented a quorum in the House.

Corrections officials say Indiana's three maximum-security prisons already are straining capacity. Budget director Adam Horst calls the bill a "ticking time bomb" that could make that situation worse.

"We don't have enough space today for any more maximum-security offenders," he said. "Any sentencing enhancements you do, you're going to have to build prisons."

The Department of Correction currently spends about $693 million a year to house 29,000 inmates. If lawmakers enact no changes, that population is estimated to swell by more than 10,000 by 2025, requiring spending up to $1.2 billion for new prisons.

The initial legislation, which arose out of a state-commissioned report by the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, would have kept the inmate population relatively flat by moving lower-level offenders to probation, community corrections and other programs. But the new changes requiring violent offenders to serve the bulk of their sentences could boost the inmate population to about 32,000 inmates by 2025.

Corrections officials say that growth could force them to build three new prisons by 2033.

Prosecutors say projections of the bill's impact are exaggerated because they're based on maximum sentences that judges don't always hand out. They said they wanted to do something to counteract sentence reductions that Negangard contends occur at the highest rate in the nation.

"Indiana has more time cuts than any other state in the union. People are doing 30 to 40 percent of their sentence," he said. He said public safety has to be a priority as well as budgets.

Marshall Clement, project director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center that helped draw up the Indiana plan and those in 13 other states, said even with credit for good time and other time cuts, violent inmates in Indiana spend more time in prison than in many other states.

He said the center hadn't encountered organized opposition from prosecutors in any other state.

Daniels, who ordered state agencies to cut more than $300 million in recent years to avert a deficit, endorsed the Pew Report's initial recommendations and supported the initial legislation. "The main point here was to incarcerate people in a smarter way and to save Indiana taxpayers a lot of money," he said after a recent speech. "So I'm not going to sign something that heads in the opposite direction and costs taxpayers money beyond what would already be the case."

Corrections officials say they are converting every available space into cells and double-bunking inmates, which could strain security. At the Pendleton state prison, about 25 miles northeast of Indianapolis, a 9-by-7-foot cell now holds two inmates.

"It's like being trapped in a bathroom with another man," said Barry Matlock, 35, who is serving a 40-year term for attempted murder. "There's just not enough room in here for two people."

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