Media

Criminal justice facility plan misses the mark

April 13, 2015 | Indianapolis Star| Link to Article

Indianapolis’ City-County Council is being pressured to vote quickly on a multifaceted, multimillion-dollar criminal justice facility. While many are focused on the bricks-and-mortar price tag, the more significant savings — in human and fiscal terms — lies in holistic criminal justice reform.

To be sure, outdated jail facilities need our city’s attention. But councilors also should be asking why our jails are overused and misused in the first place. Indeed, if we lock up too many of the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and for too much time, we exact a burden on taxpayers, prisoners and families alike.

Evident problems of jail overuse and misuse include:

— High rates of recidivism due to a loss of jobs and job opportunities. Jail is a pricey housing option for the chronically unemployed and underemployed.

— “Warehousing” the mentally ill, homeless, and drug addicted, thereby aggravating rather than ameliorating the condition that may underlie the criminal offense. Jail is a poor substitute for mental-health services, homeless shelters and rehab.

— Unjust treatment of the poor, most of whom can’t afford to post bail or pay the fees required by pretrial release programs. Our jail shouldn’t be a modern-day debtor’s prison.

If justice center planners were asked to consider these broader issues, their recommendations were not communicated to the public. Instead, the current plan not only lacks the assurance of independent analysis by public-finance and urban-planning experts, but also by criminal-justice, crime-prevention and human-service experts. In essence, city officials are asking only for a bigger box, instead of determining how to reduce the need for one.

In a Mar. 22, 2015 editorial, The Indianapolis Star said that a project of this magnitude and duration, committing significant tax dollars, warrants careful and thorough public vetting and should not be rushed. We agree.

But in that more-thorough analysis, the council also needs to consider the systemic, long-range issues of comprehensive criminal justice reform. The first order of business must be people and values, not facility financing. Facility plans must follow, and be based on, a holistic criminal justice reform plan that meets the following criteria:

— Right-size the jail based on a community commitment to reduce the rate of incarceration;

— Design the facility to accommodate ongoing renovations, as the inmate mix shifts away from the mentally ill and low-level, nonviolent offenders to those deemed to be a danger to society or a pre-trial flight risk;

— Fund alternative programs that reduce incarceration, such as pre-booking diversion programs; programs for offenders with behavioral-health issues; pre-charge diversion programs, pre-trial supervision, and transitional jobs to reduce recidivism.

We regret that we cannot support the current plan, despite the need for a new facility to house our jail and criminal courts. But the current plan raises too many unanswered questions and locks our city into a 35-year fiscal obligation that anticipates the continued overuse of our jail system. That doesn’t make human or fiscal sense.

Cost and financing alone warrant a delay in the justice-facility vote. What’s more, by slowing things down and doing this right, elected officials can chart a new course for justice in our city — one focused not just on bricks and mortar, but also on human dignity.

We suggest that this new course begin by taking a time out, tabling the current proposal, and asking the mayor and sheriff to develop a clearly articulated plan for systemic change, including a compelling proposal for reducing incarceration. That plan should be made available to taxpayers and the public-at-large long before any final decisions are made.

Steve Lattimore, IndyCAN Board Co-chair

The Rev. Clarence C. Moore, Co-Chair IndyCAN Clergy Council & Senior Pastor Northside New Era Church of Indianapolis

Bishop Michael J. Coyner, Indiana Area of The United Methodist Church

Rabbi Brett Krichiver, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation

Archbishop Joseph Tobin, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis