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Rehab, not jail, shows promise in lowering recidivism

April 10, 2013

In Knox County, the threat of incarceration is met with a shrug.

Substance abuse, with methamphetamine being the drug of choice, is putting many behind bars again and again. For some, drug and alcohol abuse begins as young as 8 years old and being arrested is just part of the routine.

“Sometimes (being imprisoned) does give a wake up call,” said Rev. Peter Haskins, “but to a lot of the folks it’s a real acceptable thing to go to jail.”

To help combat the drug problem, Haskins, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, started the Life After Meth program in May 2005. Two years later, LAM partnered with the Knox County jail to bring the program to the facility.

The community-model initiative includes parenting classes, drug treatment, employment classes and Bible study. Haskins said the program has helped participants find jobs, provided support after they are released and is currently preparing to add transitional housing.

“It’s a good way to teach,” Haskins said of putting LAM in the jail. “It is a great setting. It has worked beautifully.”

The LAM program in Knox County is one example of taking a different approach to the problem of crime. Communities around the state are employing alternative courts and treatment programs to address the root cause of why some individuals commit felonies and misdemeanors. In turn, these efforts are credited with reducing the rate of recidivism.

The rewrite of Indiana’s criminal code under House Bill 1006 attempts to boost these alternative programs by calling for intensive probation, rather than lengthy incarceration, for low-level offenders.

Money is among the primary motivators for the shift. At the current rate of incarceration, the Indiana Department of Correction expects its offender population to grow from the current 27,647 to 29,000 by 2020, according to a fiscal report by the Legislative Services Agency. At that point, the department will likely have to request funds to build a new prison.

Instituting the proposed changes in the criminal code bill could delay that population growth possibly into the 2030s. Along with not having to budget for the cost of building a new prison, the state would save on operating costs. The LSA report noted the Miami Correctional Facility has an operating budget of $32 million for fiscal year 2013.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the criminal code is not being revamped solely because of the fiscal element. The focus is to have the punishment equitably match the crime.

“But the reality is, if we don’t make that adjustment, we’ll be building another half-billion dollar prison in Indiana in the immediate future,” he said.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law, advocates of alternative programs emphasized these different approaches are helping certain offenders change their behaviors and stop the cycle of repeated incarcerations. In the long-term, diverting people from criminal activities and keeping them out of jail and prison saves the state money.

However in the short-term, these programs cost money.

As it was introduced, HB 1006 called for the establishment of a probation improvement fund with a state appropriation of $1.9 million and funds from other sources. That funding was removed in the House.

Testifying before the Senate Committee, Don Travis, president of the Probation Officers’ Professional Association of Indiana, strongly encouraged the committee to re-insert the funding for evidence-based programs that can cut crime.

“If this bill goes into effect without the proper community resources, this bill will not have the effect that is anticipated,” he told the committee members. “Our recidivism rates will continue to grow if we don’t have the resources or the funding to implement the way the bill is currently being structured.”

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