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home : most recent : region 5 September 14, 2014

7/3/2011 8:21:00 AM
No place to put worst of the worst Indiana criminals

Scott Smith, Kokomo Tribune staff writer

It may be that Joseph Brown had behaved himself, for the most part, after leaving the Westville Correctional Facility.

The flood of prison violations he committed between 2002 and 2005 had largely ceased. He had one major violation in 2010, and two minor offenses in March of this year.

But any semblance of good behavior on Brown’s part was quickly forgotten June 19. That’s when police say Brown killed his cell mate, Charles Miller, at Bunker Hill’s Miami Correctional Facility.

Now Brown is back at the control unit, which is where Indiana Department of Correction officials put their biggest security risks.

Why Brown, who compiled a lengthy list of assaults, trafficking and weapons possession violations prior to his first trip to the control unit, was placed in a cell with Miller is a question DOC officials still are pondering.

But the genesis of the decision to place Brown in a general-population setting began with Indiana’s criminal law code, and the sentencing provisions contained within that code.

For most of the past decade, Indiana’s legislators have been struggling to fund the increase in the state’s prison population, which grew 41 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to a recent study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The study’s main conclusion: Indiana’s laws do not result in sentences that are proportionate to the severity of the crime.

That conclusion, according to the study’s authors, is why the rise in Indiana’s prison population has far outpaced neighboring states.

When the Indiana General Assembly convened in January, Gov. Mitch Daniels cited that conclusion when he urged legislators to implement a package of reforms, aimed at keeping more low-level offenders out of prison.

Without reforms to the criminal code and accompanying sentencing reforms, Daniels said, Indiana likely will have to spend more than $1 billion on new prisons within the next decade.

State prison officials haven’t yet commented on why Brown was transferred to Miami Correctional from the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City in June 2010.

Until October 2009, Miami Correctional was designated as a “minimum-medium” security prison. Indiana offenders are ranked on a 1-to-4 scale, with 4 being the highest security risk.

Miami Correctional still houses mostly Level 2 offenders. Charles Miller, who was serving a 15-year sentence for attempted murder, was a Level 2 offender.

But more and more maximum-security-risk prisoners are coming to Miami Correctional. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of Level 3 offenders increased fivefold at Miami Correctional.

Brown, serving life without parole, was a Level 4 offender. He already had served time at two of the three prisons where most of the state’s “worst of the worst” are housed.

But state prison officials say they’re placing more and more offenders like Brown in places like Miami Correctional, places where formerly they wouldn’t have been placed.

So why wasn’t Brown housed at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility at Carlisle, or at the Indiana State Prison, or at the Pendleton Reformatory — the three prisons with predominately maximum-security populations?

“Because those facilities are full,” IDOC spokesman Doug Garrison said. “Of the ones we are taking in, we need more restrictive confinement spaces at these facilities.”

Garrison said the increasing number of low-level offenders is exacerbating the problem of where to put maximum-security offenders.

“You have to make room for everybody. In our lowest-level facilities, we’ve had to double- or triple-bunk some offenders,” he said. “It has a cascading effect.

“Our crime rate’s not going up, but our prison population is going up,” Garrison said. “One of the reasons is we have a lot of guys in the prison population who are here for less than a year. The debate is, do we do much good incarcerating low-level offenders in prison?”

The reforms pushed by the governor earlier this year didn’t pass, but the Legislature’s Criminal Code Evaluation Commission is meeting this summer in an attempt to keep the issue on the front burner.

Former U.S. Attorney Deborah Daniels is heading up efforts to compile and analyze data for the commission, in hopes of avoiding the sorts of problems that beset the legislative effort earlier this year.

Debate on the proposals broke down after the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council contested some of the data in the Justice Center study. The association also submitted numbers, which were in turn contested by the Justice Center.

Now Deborah Daniels and a team of attorneys are hoping to provide objective data that can become a starting point for a renewed debate.

“This was one of these things which couldn’t be completed in the time allotted,” she said. “There really wasn’t enough time [during the legislative session] to get good data.”

According to the Justice Center, the number of people admitted to Indiana prisons for low-level, Class D felonies increased by 28 percent between 2005 and 2009.

That’s the kind of statistic Deborah Daniels’ team will look into this summer and into the next legislative session.

In the meantime, the IDOC will be receiving new prisoners, and deciding where to place them.

“In an ideal world, with an unlimited budget, you would put every man in a single-man cell, and only let them out once a day,” Garrison said. “But you make do with the budget you have. That said, our challenge is still to find a place to put the — as you called them — worst of the worst.”

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