Pence’s $51M prison expansion proposal met by skepticism

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Gov. Mike Pence's proposal for expanding two state prisons is drawing skepticism from some legislative leaders as it comes just months after Indiana's criminal sentencing laws changed in part to reduce the need for more prison space.

An alternative plan with bipartisan support in the Indiana House calls for directing $50 million more a year toward counties for work release and other local programs as they are expected to more low-level offenders under the sentencing overhaul.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said increased funding for local programs is "critical" under the sentencing revisions that went into effect in July.

As for the inmate population, Bosma questioned whether it would grow as quickly as the state Department of Correction is projecting — from about 29,000 in 2013 to about 31,500 in 2019. That growth is why Pence administration budget officials say maximum-security expansions are needed to the tune of $51 million at the Miami Correctional Facility near Peru and the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Sullivan.

"We are doing the greatly enhanced community corrections, in part because it is the right thing to do, but in part to avoid building another prison," Bosma said. "We aren't going to do both is my prediction."

Provisions of the overhaul require that most inmates serve at least 75 percent of their sentences, which was aimed at giving crime victims and others more certainty about how much time the convicted will spend in prison. Previous law allowed most inmates to be released after serving half their sentence — or less — if they stayed out of trouble while behind bars.

Another major shift aims have more people convicted of lower-level property or drug crimes spend time in intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs, in hopes that will help prevent them from becoming career criminals.

Department of Correction spokesman Doug Garrison said lower-level offenders aren't the ones who would be going into the new maximum-security cell houses planned at the two prisons. The agency's proposal calls for spending about $33 million on three new Wabash Valley cell houses, which would add 800 beds, and about $18 million for two new cell houses at the Miami prison, giving it 512 additional beds.

"We probably get 100 new lengthy, lengthy sentence guys every year and a comparable number don't leave," he said. "Our max security population is going up and that's why we have to build housing units for them."

Garrison said it is difficult to know the impact of the new sentencing guidelines yet.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald, who was a leading sponsor of the sentencing overhaul plan, said he wanted to see more data on how judges are imposing sentences under the new rules before deciding whether to support more prison construction.

Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the proposal to support community corrections and other local programs with $50 million a year in state grants was an important step toward making the overhaul work. That bill is being co-sponsored by both House floor leaders — Republican Jud McMillin of Brookville and Democrat Linda Lawson of Hammond.

Sen. Karen Tallian, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she thought it was premature for the Pence administration to push a prison expansion while not seeking money for community corrections, probation officers and substance abuse treatment programs

"One of the things we're trying to do is keep people out of prison," said Tallian, D-Portage. "They have not shown that all those new prison beds are for violent offenders. I think they need to justify their figures."

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