Faced with a looming state budget crisis and the General Assembly's failure so far to provide funding for 1,600 new prison cells, the administration of Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon (R) is preparing plans for the early release of almost 700 prisoners. The plan would apply to Class C and D felony offenders -- the least serious felonies -- which includes people imprisoned for drug possession, as well as drunk drivers, forgers, burglars and other low-level felons.
State Budget Director Marilyn Schultz has presented two different early release proposals to state lawmakers meeting in conference committee to resolve budget differences between the state's upper and lower legislative chambers. A one-time early release program allowing Class C felons to get out 60 days early and Class D felons to get out 30 days early would result in the early release of 673 inmates, Schultz reported. A continuing early release program for Class C and D offenders would also result in significant prisoner releases, Shultz said, but provided no numbers. Under the one-time proposal, the state's prison population would continue to increase, while the continuing early release proposal would begin to slow that rate, Schultz said.
As of July 1, 2002, Indiana held some 21,500 prisoners, nearly 20% of whom were drug offenders. Five years earlier, the state held 17,500 prisoners, 16% of whom were doing time for drug offenses.
While the early release proposal could be a bargaining chip in budget talks -- threatening legislators with having to vote for releasing prisoners if they fail to ante up for more prison spending -- some legislators are inclined to support such a move anyway. Faced with an $800 million budget deficit, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Crawford (R), expressed interest. The state prisons are a "vacuum that sucks up all our state dollars," he told the Louisville Courier-Herald. "If we continue to go down this road, it's going to burst some budgets."
Indiana currently spends almost $600 million per year on prisons, nearly 5% of the total state budget. Gov. O'Bannon requested an additional $27 million to build 1,600 new beds, but the legislature balked. Now the conference committee will review the competing proposals. The legislature is also pondering whether to create a state sentencing commission to review sentencing policy.