ACLU report highlights Indiana’s prison problem

While acknowledging Indiana’s efforts to reform its criminal justice system has slowed the growth of the state’s prison population, a new report by the ACLU of Indiana asserts that additional reforms, including expanded access to treatment for mental health and substance abuse, could reduce the number of incarcerated by 50 percent and save Hoosier taxpayers more than $541 million by 2025.

The report released Monday is part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints project. Included in the overview of Indiana’s incarcerated is an analysis of who is being sent to jail and prison, the racial disparities, what drives people into the penal system, how long people spend behind bars and why people are imprisoned for so long.

It also contains a map for ending mass incarceration. Specifically, the report outlines steps to reduce admissions, decrease time served, reduce admissions and lower disability disparities.

“The mass incarceration crisis, in Indiana and across the country, has taken a huge toll on families and communities, and has wasted trillions of taxpayer dollars,” said Jane Henegar, ACLU of Indiana executive director. “The current system has failed, disproportionately affecting communities of color. Legislative, policing and prosecutorial reform must be specific to combatting these disparities.”

Key finding from the report’s analysis of Indiana include:

• 77 percent of Indiana’s jails are at capacity or overcrowded.

• More than half of the estimated 27,187 people in Indiana county jails have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

• 24 percent of people in Indiana prisons are serving time for a drug offense.

• One in three people in Indiana prisons is serving 20 years or more.

• Black Hoosiers were imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites.

• The number of women in the state’s prisons grew 9 percent between 2009 and 2019 even though the male prison population dropped 4 percent.

• 34 percent of the people released from Indiana prisons in 2014 were reincarcerated within three years.

To reduce the number of people being incarcerated, the ACLU of Indiana said Indiana must “break its overreliance on jails and prisons” as a way to hold people accountable for their crimes.

The report advocates for a number of strategies to reduce admissions, including establishing a statewide holistic public defender service that provides not only access to an attorney but also to social services for assistance in finding housing, employment, and treatment. It also calls for decriminalizing personal drug use and possession in favor of approaching the problem as a public health concern.

To reduce the time served, the report calls for the elimination of mandatory minimums, expanding the availability of earned credits and allowing for compassionate release of aging and seriously injured or ill individuals.

People with mental illness are twice as likely to be arrested and are sentenced to prison terms that are, on average, 12 percent longer that people without a mental illness. The report proposes investing in pretrial diversion, ending custodial arrest and incarceration for low-level public order charges, and requiring prosecutors to offer diversion for individuals with mental health and substance use needs who are charged with nonserious offenses.

“This crisis goes deeper than just criminal justice policy reform,” said Henegar. “We are proud to stand with community partners to support long-needed reform to the criminal justice system and reforms to the many systems that have failed to adequately support individuals in our community, ultimately and unnecessarily resulting in their incarceration. We must address inadequacies throughout our education, healthcare and economic systems, to name a few.”

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