Steps to update justice system

South Bend Tribune

A group of experts in Indiana has taken on a daunting task: reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

One of the judges in the process likened it to making changes to an airplane while it’s rolling down the runway. And Indiana’s criminal justice system, or any state for that matter, is far from perfect.

Last year, Indiana was one of three states selected for a federal grant to make changes to the justice system, with the hope of reducing crime rates and recidivism and making the system fairer.

The group, which includes judges, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and mental health experts, met June 21 to begin talking about the changes.

Officially, it’s referred to as an evidence-based, decision-making approach to criminal justice. Practically, it means the decisions regarding offenders should be based on research and experience, which is sometimes difficult to achieve when talking about something as complex as the criminal justice system.

Consider this: The 2015 recidivism rates in Indiana increased slightly for the second time in as many years. The DOC said of those offenders released in 2012, 38 percent were recommitted within three years of their release date. The younger an offender is at the time of his or her release, the more likely the person is to end up back in the system.

On the other hand, offenders who received visits from family or friends while incarcerated were 16 percent less likely to become a repeat offender, and those who took part in a work release program were more than 37 percent less likely to return to prison.

In the end, the key questions is: Can Indiana’s criminal justice system be better and, in the process, more cost-effective, too?

Building more prisons is not the answer. Studying what types of sentences work best to reduce recidivism is worth trying, and that’s what the experts and Indiana’s six pilot counties will be testing.

Indiana has already taken some steps.

A law that took effect in 2014 prohibited anyone with a sentence of less than two years from being sent to the DOC. At the same time, high-level felons now must serve as least 75 percent of their sentences, instead of the previous 50 percent.

But reforming the system won’t be easy, and we’ve seen numerous previous efforts fail. Will this effort be any different? For the sake of not only prisoners and their families, but also taxpayers statewide, here’s hoping the latest group can catch up to the airplane and start making repairs before it gets too far down the runway.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.