Funding ‘critical’ to continue criminal code reform initiatives

Lawmakers also want to increase penalties on drug makers, dealers

January 25, 2017

As lawmakers hammer out another biennial budget, officials backing Indiana’s criminal justice reform say money is the key to keeping the effort moving forward.

So far, support appears to be solid for continuing to provide funding. Lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have indicated their willingness to pay for the initiatives designed to rehabilitate lower-level offenders and stop the cycle of repeated incarcerations.

The budget proposal from the governor includes a $10 million increase in funding for Recovery Works, the program operated by the Division of Mental Health and Addiction of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. This program provides vouchers to help offenders get services for mental illness or drug dependency.

Also, Holcomb wants a $5 million increase for the Indiana Department of Correction’s grant program that provides money to county jails, courts and probation offices. These entities can apply for this funding to help handle the influx of Level 6 felony inmates who are now serving their sentences in local jails.

The House of Representatives is still crafting its budget but Republicans gave special attention to the reform initiative when they announced their legislative agenda earlier this month. Specifically, majority members pledged to continue to support the state’s criminal code reforms and said they intend to focus on efforts to expand treatment options for substance abuse.

Steuerwald Steuerwald

Maintaining the financial support is “absolutely critical,” said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, the architect of the criminal code reform bill that passed the Indiana General Assembly in 2013. “We are at a juncture now where we have to continue on. To not fund at this point would be a disaster.”

However, the Avon Republican also pointed out the push in the Legislature to target the supply side of Indiana’s drug crisis. The criminal code reform has focused on treatment and recovery to reduce the demand for methamphetamines, opioids and other controlled substances.

Describing the problem as multi-pronged, Steuerwald agreed the state has to also pay attention to the manufacturing and distribution of the drugs.

“We have to address both sides of the equation,” he said. “There’s a supply and demand, we have to deal with both of them.”

Diminishing demand

The January meeting of the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council showed the work to curb demand is still the main thrust of the reform effort and where the money is going.

In 2015 when the Legislature passed the current budget, it included $55 million for the criminal code initiatives. The first year, DMHA received $10 million and the DOC was given $5 million. The second year, the amounts increased to $20 million each for DMHA and the DOC.

Holcomb’s proposal would give DMHA $20 million each year in the next budget. The DOC would receive $5 million for the first year then a bump to $25 million for the second year.

The Department of Correction uses the grant program to funnel the appropriation to the counties around the state. In anticipation that it will be included in the next budget, the agency has already set a Jan. 31 deadline for grant applications with the funds set to flow July 1.

Central to the reform is keeping Level 6 felons incarcerated in county jails. This alleviates overcrowding in the state prisons and is touted as allowing the offenders to maintain ties to their communities while participating in rehabilitation programs.

According to the DOC’s January 2017 Offender Population Report, 1,604 inmates who would most likely have gone into the state prison system are currently serving their terms in their local county jails.

The same report shows Hendricks County has a total of 63 Level 6 felons who were diverted from the DOC.

The rapid growth of the county’s population along with the raging opioid epidemic and the Level 6 felons has pushed the jail’s average daily population to 270, according to Sheriff Brett Clark. With 250 beds available, the staff is using portable bunks for the extra people, but the crowded conditions raise frustration levels of both the inmates and staff.

Noting the jail cannot hang a “no vacancy” sign, Clark speculated the county will have to build a new jail sooner rather than later.

Expanding services

The Division of Mental Health and Addiction is in the process of launching a new initiative to expand the Recovery Works program. Under the jail re-entry pilot program, as DMHA director Kevin Moore explained, inmates with mental illness or substance abuse problems will be identified so when they are released, they will know where to go in the community to continue treatment and have an appointment made for their first visit.

Moore Moore

Recovery Works will then cover the costs until the ex-inmates are receiving benefits either through Medicaid or the Healthy Indiana Plan.

Clark was a little skeptical when he began the process to get inmates enrolled in the public health-insurance programs. Hendricks County is one of 16 counties that are participating in the re-entry pilot.

The sheriff thought few would be interested, but he found overwhelmingly the offenders wanted the help navigating the steps to get the treatment and coverage they would need on the outside.

“You realize they’re in here because they’re not good enough at life to handle the system to get treatment and get help,” Clark said of the offenders. “They don’t know how to get it.”

In addition, Recovery Works will be addressing the problems of suitable housing. Many offenders struggle to find a place to live once they are released, but DMHA will be working with the National Alliance for Recovery Residences to credential group homes where former inmates with drug and mental health problems can live in a supportive, sober environment.

Moore said the need for housing post-incarceration has always been there and the housing has not been available. Now with the criminal code reform and rising public awareness of the drug epidemic, the “time is right to move forward with expanding the available houses that support recovery.”

Going after suppliers

As the reform continues, JRAC is keeping track of the data. The group wants to be able to use hard numbers to show the Legislature the impact of the different rehabilitation and treatment programs.

seigel Seigel

Currently 100 percent of the state courts are complying with the requirement that an abstract of judgment accompanies every offender sent to the DOC, said Jane Seigel, executive director of the Indiana Office of Court Services and chair of JRAC. The focus now is to get the trial courts to fill out the abstracts for the Level 6 felony inmates who stay in the county jails.

“This is how you can keep count and see what levels people are, how many there are and what the trends are,” Seigel said. “Absolutely it’s critical data.”

In the meantime, the Statehouse is also looking at drug dealers and makers. Bills are floating that would raise the felony level for manufacturing meth as well as for making, delivering and financing cocaine, narcotics, meth or other drugs.

Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, has introduced a bill that mirrors Holcomb’s call for increasing the penalties for pharmacy robberies. House Bill 1312 makes pharmacy robbery a Level 4 felony and increases the level if a deadly weapon is used and if someone is injured.

The bill has been assigned to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee.•


Recent Articles by Marilyn Odendahl