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Editorials

Sentencing revisions signal a welcome trend

This year’s revision of Indiana’s criminal code was a welcome move to address an urgent problem. President Barack Obama’s plan to dramatically increase clemencies for nonviolent federal drug offenders is a step in the right direction nationally. But there’s more to be done at all levels of lawmaking and law enforcement.

Murders and shootings in Fort Wayne mar the larger picture, but violent crime and property crime generally have been going down nationally for years. Yet prisons and jails are overflowing.

In the early 1970s, there were 250,000 inmates in the United States. Now, the Sentencing Project estimates, there are 2.2 million American prisoners. Much of the increase has been blamed on drug laws from the 1980s and laws that forced judges to send nonviolent offenders off to prison where some of them have remained for decades. “Inflexible sentencing policies,” the Washington Post said, “have made the United States the world’s leading jailer.”

Obama’s decision has the federal government gearing up to process thousands of requests from inmates who may already have served more time for their crimes, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission moved earlier this month to reduce sentences for current and future drug-possession defendants. (High-level drug dealers, whether violent or not, are not eligible for leniency or sentence redress.)

In Indiana, the legislature this year passed a revision of the criminal code that toughens penalties for more serious felonies but reduces those for some nonviolent offenses. Predicted reductions in prison populations will save the state money and reduce pressure on its aging prisons, where the inmate population also has ballooned in recent years. But the new law will mean that some convicts will be serving their shorter sentences in county jail rather than in prison.

The Allen County Jail already is sometimes near capacity, so authorities here are preparing for further challenges with the expected influx of new inmates. It’s likely that both the revised criminal code and provisions for shifting costs to local jails will have to be revisited once the new code’s effects begin to be felt later this year.

The principle is a simple one. Jails and prisons should be for those who pose a demonstrated danger to society. Other countries seem to have done a better job striking the balance between using incarceration to protect their citizens and putting people behind bars because they’ve committed a non- violent offense. Unless we’re prepared to spend more and more money expanding jails and prisons and building new ones, finding that balance will be a continuing challenge at the state and national levels for many years to come.

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