Rethinking Incarceration

Originally published Spring 2010

Indiana’s fiscal difficulties had one happy consequence: it resulted in a 2010 General Assembly session that passed remarkably few new crimes or enhanced sentences. Larry Landis, Executive Director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said this year’s low number was a record.

The reason for this restraint, of course, is that the cost of incarceration is enormous. And what’s worse, as costs increase and resources disappear, Indiana like many other states has cut back on prison programs like education and recreation, which increases the likelihood of recidivism and its future costs.

Alternatives to incarceration not only save money – money that could fund public education, for example – but they also promote rehabilitation, community reentry and the re-establishing of social ties.

One promising alternative is the use of problem-solving courts. A bill that seems headed for enactment would permit city or county courts to set up a variety of treatment diversions for offenders. These could include but are not limited to drug courts, family dependency drug courts, mental health courts, reentry courts, domestic violence courts, veteran’s courts, and community courts to address specific neighborhood or local criminal problems. The due process concerns with the original bill have been eased by amendments.

The Assembly was also creative in handling a bill criminalizing a juvenile’s creating, transmitting or possessing sexually provocative video or text messages. “Sexting”, as this has come to be called, is an issue of great interest in many legislatures this year. It’s not a new preoccupation of teens; it’s simply the use of the newest technology for them to explore and express their sexuality.

Sexting is of course ill-advised, but for politicians to make it a delinquent act would expose a large number of teens to the criminal justice system. The cost to them and to the taxpayers would be great. If punishment were to include incarceration, the costs would escalate. The average cost of housing a juvenile in a state juvenile facility was $75,050 in FY 2009.

Confronted with these fiscal realities, the legislature decided to refer the sexting bill to a summer study committee for its recommendations and to permit schools to offer instruction regarding the risks and consequences of sending sexually suggestive materials electronically.

This openness to exploring alternative ways of addressing undesirable behavior is wise and socially beneficial.

We should each make it a point to encourage our legislators to continue it even when funding becomes less dire.