The Corner

The Solution to Indiana’s High Prison Costs

Ordinarily, a kind mention in the New York Times — there have actually been a few, lately — sends me back for a serious rethink of whatever action or stance gave rise to the compliment. But this week’s support for our proposed criminal justice reforms in Indiana will engender no second thoughts, because the Times has it right — we can be a lot smarter about our incarceration policies.

During my transition to service in December 2004, I was told that we would need to build at least one new prison a year starting immediately. I said, “Uh, the state’s broke. I think we’ll need to find an alternative.” Six years later, we are housing 38 percent more prisoners without having built one additional cell. At a per day cost that is down around 30 percent, by the way. But even we are out of capacity utilization ideas.

Enter our friends from the Council on State Governments and the Pew Foundation. Their analysis shows that we are imprisoning, in our most expensive spaces, more people for relatively minor, non-violent offenses, like low-level property and drug violations, than most other states. Some of our guests are not with the state corrections system long enough for any rehabilitation, substance-abuse counseling, or job training to take place. They’re only with us, as my guys say, “long enough to study under some real criminals.”

If we can get our legislature to go along, we will soon be matching the place of incarceration more closely to the offender’s true danger to society, reducing recidivism and saving a bundle of money on new prisons we don’t have to build and staff. We’ll reinvest a small fraction of the savings into better community corrections and rehab services. And, as the researchers told us, “You’ll still be five times tougher on criminals than Ohio, just not ten times.”

As the Times editorialists were thinking, “Even a benighted Midwestern Republican stumbles on a good idea once in a while.” Which is approximately what I was thinking about them!

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