Budget plans include millions for local criminal programs

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The Indiana House and Senate have each proposed putting at least $80 million more toward county prison diversion programs over the next two years as part of the state's major overhaul of its criminal sentencing guidelines.

Supporters of the sentencing revisions say a key goal is to have people convicted of lower-level property or drug crimes spend time in intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs, with the intention of reducing the chance of them becoming career criminals.

The proposed two-year state budget advanced by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday would increase funding for community corrections programs by about $55 million and put $30 million more toward mental health and addiction treatment. The budget plan endorsed by the House in February would allocate $80 million toward those types of programs.

House and Senate negotiators have until April 29 to agree on an overall budget, but both proposals leave out Gov. Mike Pence's request for $51 million to pay for expansions at the Miami Correctional Facility near Peru and the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Sullivan.

House Majority Leader Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said he was glad that the House and Senate seemed to agree on where criminal justice funding should go.

"The fact that it seems we're on the same page of saying 'It's not time to invest in new prisons, it's time to invest in alternative programs' is a huge step in the right direction," McMillin said.

The sentencing overhaul, which took effect in July, requires that most inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences. The requirement was aimed at giving crime victims and others more certainty about how much time the convicted will spend in prison. Previously, inmates who stayed out of trouble could get out after serving half their time or less.

That has led state Department of Correction officials to worry about a long-term increase in the number of maximum-security inmates even as the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates about 6,500 low-level felons a year will be directed into county programs.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said his panel's budget proposal directs much of the community corrections funding to the Department of Correction, but requires that the money go to local programs.

"We're not dealing with more people," Kenley said. "You either have them in DOC or you have them in the community. Although the numbers sound big about how many more you're going to have in the community, overall, there's not more people."

County officials have been worried since the General Assembly passed the sentencing overhaul in 2013 that they might not get enough money to cover the additional costs.

It will take more time with judges using the new sentencing guidelines before counties know how much their expenses will grow, but the House and Senate funding proposals seem to be a good starting point, said Ryan Hoff, government affairs director for the Association of Indiana Counties.

"I don't think there's any great information as far as what the actual cost is going to be," Hoff said. "It may have to be a give and take over a couple years before we find the sweet spot as to what the actual funding need is."

The House and Senate plans differ on how the money is distributed to counties and what rules local officials would face on spending it.

McMillin, who was among the leading House sponsors of the sentencing laws overhaul, said he believed the bulk of that money needed to go toward tackling what he called the root causes of many crimes.

"You're talking mental health problems, you're talking addiction problems," he said. "We have neglected that for far too long."

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