January 31, 2020

Corrections Corner / Deacon Marc Kellams

More needs to be done to reduce incarceration rates

Deacon Marc KellamsWould it surprise you to learn that the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with roughly 25 percent of the world’s prison population comprising more than 2.1 million total prisoners? The prisoner rate is 737 per 100,000 people. Russia’s is 615 per 100,000, Mexico’s is 196 per 100,000, China’s is 118 per 100,000, and Japan’s is 62 per 100,000.

This “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality has flooded our jails and prisons. Shockingly, a large number of those incarcerated suffer from poorly treated mental illness. We need to face the fact that prisons and jails are not the place to house our mentally ill, and we need to admit that we have lost the war on drugs. There are more effective ways of providing justice for society.

State budgets are strained beyond normal limits. The average cost to house an adult inmate in Indiana in 2019 was $52.61 per day ($19,202.65 per year).

There are those individuals who present a danger to society and have forfeited their right to live in freedom. Most inmates, however, are incarcerated for property crimes or drug-related offenses, which could better be managed in local community corrections programs that provide monitoring, alcoholism and addiction treatment, and training in enhanced parenting skills, tools to manage finances, and ways to find gainful employment.

The IN.gov website provides the following: “The State Constitution states the penal code shall be founded on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive justice. The Department is required to provide medical and dental services to inmates as well as access to law libraries and educational programs.

“However, if an inmate wants to pursue post-secondary education, the cost is the inmate’s responsibility. Idle prisoners would require more supervision and could be a threat to the security of the facility. Therefore, it is important to not only provide programming and employment to the inmates, but allow them recreational time as well. It should be noted that most of the inmates currently incarcerated will be returning to society, and hopefully will be prepared when they do so.”

It’s a noble goal that we are poorly meeting.

Maybe the most important line above, besides the fact that the Constitution of Indiana mandates reformation and not vindictive justice, is that “most of the inmates currently incarcerated will be returning to society.” We really shouldn’t want them coming out worse than when they went in.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, recommends four ways that states can reduce incarceration rates:

  • Decriminalize certain activities and reclassify certain low-level felonies.
  • Expand the use of alternatives to prison for non-violent crimes and divert people with mental health or substance abuse issues from the prison system.
  • Reduce the length of prison terms and parole/probation periods.
  • Restrict the use of prison for technical violations of parole/probation.

Indiana took major steps in the right direction in the recodification of the Indiana penal code in 2014.

But more can and needs to be done.

(Deacon Marc Kellams is the Coordinator of Corrections Ministry for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He can be reached at mkellams@archindy.org or call 317-592-4012.)

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