The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Editorials

January 31, 2014

Criminal code may be off target

CNHI Says

Editor’s note: The Register-Herald’s parent company, Community Newpaper Holdings Inc., has papers all over the United States. Each Friday, this space will be dedicated to what one of those papers thinks about the issues facing the nation.

In America, more than in any other country, our answer to crime is to lock perpetrators behind bars.

At the end of 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.571 million people were incarcerated in the United States. Another way to look at it: 716 of every 100,000 Americans were locked up, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

That’s by far the highest rate in the world, with St. Kitts and Nevis a distant second at 649 incarcerated per 100,000 population.

In Indiana, we’re willing contributors to the lock-up mania. Indiana’s prison population is about 30,000, and we’re adding more new prisoners each year. Last year, the number of new admissions to the prison system surged by 9 percent.

A major revision of Indiana’s criminal code, including a major overhaul of the felony code of 1977, is set to take effect in July. One of the aims of the revision is to reduce the number of Hoosier behind bars, with a renewed focus on rehabilitation.

But many prosecutors, law enforcement officials and state lawmakers have major misgivings about the code revision. They worry that it will put drug dealers back on the street, place the financial burden of offender rehabilitation more squarely on local communities and actually increase the state’ prison population.

Applied Research Services, at the behest of state legislators, analyzed the prospective impact of the criminal code revision. According to ARS, the state’s prison population would likely increase to about 35,500 by 2024. ARS also studied potential prison growth if the current Indiana criminal code were kept, and estimated the 2024 prison population at about 34,000.

Earlier studies by the Indiana Department of Correction and the Legislative Services Agency anticipated Indiana’s prison population, with the new criminal code in effect, would remain flat or decrease as the years pass.

While the criminal code revision would reduce prison sentences for some low-level drug offenses in favor of more rehabilitation efforts, it would also require many prisoners to spend at least 75 percent of their sentence locked up. Currently, many convicts are released, on good behavior, after they’ve served 50 percent of their sentence.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings, in an article published recently in The Herald Bulletin (visit www.heraldbulletin.com and search for “Rodney Cummings”), voiced strong opposition to the code revision.

He focused, specifically, on the county’s methamphetamine problem and noted that many meth users and dealers could be back out on the street much more quickly if the code is revised.

The state’s existing criminal code is, without a doubt, in need of a major overhaul, one that reduces the prison population and our societal reliance on incarceration while seeking to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.

While the aims of the code revision to take effect are generally on target, there is too much doubt about the new law’s practicality and outcomes. Legislators would serve the state well by delaying its implementation and going back to the drawing board.

In summary State legislators would serve citizens well by delaying implementation of a criminal code revision and going back to the drawing board.

— The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Ind.

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