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State Discusses Probation And Community Corrections Merger

Instead of forced consolidation, the bill now requires collaboration.

Every day at her criminal court in Indianapolis, Judge Barbara Cook Crawford sees low-level offenders accused of drug possession and theft. She sentences the majority of them to either probation or community corrections programs.

"Because the whole point of all of this is that people don't end up back into the system again," Cook Crawford says. "If they commit a crime – fine. But let's get them through the system, get them into a program so that we do not see them again."

State lawmakers say local options are not only more effective at reducing recidivism. They're also cheaper.

Local Options in the Criminal Code Overhaul

Months of interim study committees at the Indiana legislature failed to result in a consensus as to whether the criminal code changes passed last year will actually increase or decrease the state's prison population.

One thing everyone could agree on is that more programs, and therefore more funding, will be needed in the short term to prepare local institutions for an influx of offenders who normally would have gone to the state-run Department of Corrections.

But in this short legislative session, appropriating additional dollars is highly unlikely.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville instead recommends a belt-tightening in the Criminal Justice System.

"Fiscal people tend to look at these a little differently and we're going to say ‘Ok, what new programs are you putting in here? How can they be delivered?'" he says, meaning the legislature needs to consider how can they be paid for.

Speaking on the Senate floor at the beginning of this year's session, Kenley said he supports the findings of the study committees, but he challenged them to find ways to save the DOC money so it could be re-directed into new and enhanced local programming.

"A lot of counties have both a probation department and a community corrections department," Kenley said. "Why should you have two of these entities in a county? So, can we consolidate this and help offset some of the costs in that way?"

 Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, responded to Kenley's challenge by crafting Senate Bill 171, which would have established a pilot program in Marion County consolidating probation and community corrections into one entity.

But that suggestion ignited opponents.

"Inherently Different Programs"

As Vice Chairman for the Marion County Community Corrections Advisory Board, Judge Barbara Cook Crawford takes issue with the notion that the two agencies perform similar tasks.

She says probation and community corrections are inherently different.

If an offender is sentenced to probation the individual is monitored and has to do certain things.

"His life remains the same except he has to follow certain rules," Crawford says. "He has to report to a probation officer periodically – take drug tests maybe. There are certain conditions placed on it, but his liberty is not restricted."

If an offender is sentenced to a community corrections center, the process can be much more intense. The offender is usually subject to electronic monitoring or in some cases confined to a work release center.

Crawford says there are more than 40,000 people who go through the criminal justice system in Marion County each year, and consolidation would be a massive undertaking.

Bill Watson, the executive director of the Vigo County Community Corrections Center, works in a building that is part jail, part counseling center, administering a work release program as well as home detention and electronic monitoring services.

Watson says his department is already doing everything it can to save money. More than half of his budget comes not from the state, but from user fees.

"When they're sentenced to our program, they have a set fee they have to pay to be on electronic monitoring or work release. They rent their equipment in electronic monitoring," Watson says.

But because of the economy, Watson says the number of offenders who can pay for programs like substance abuse treatment, job skills training, education and mental health counseling is dwindling. That means user-fee revenue is also shrinking.

He worries that combining with probation, which he says is predominantly concerned with pre-trial sentencing, could result in a loss of valuable programming that gets real results.

Watson also chafes at the idea of a blanket operational mandate for all community corrections centers because their strength lies in their flexibility.

"You can model your community corrections programs based on the community they're in. They're not cookie cutter," Watson says. "You find what works in your community or what you need and you build your program around that."

Some Counties Programs Already Working Together

Consolidation isn't a new concept to Monroe County Chief Probation Officer Linda Brady.

"At first I didn't understand the use of the term pilot project, because its being done already, in other counties," she says.

Brady presides over a system that has been consolidated for 30 years. Monroe County is one of nine counties that has already unified its probation and community correction departments.

"We're able to share one receptionist. We're able to share one person that collects the money, one chief probation officer, Brady Says. "We just share resources with one another and share expertise and share training."

 While she supported the initial legislation, Brady says she understands a forced consolidation might not work for everyone.

Brady is also the head of a statewide association of Probation Officers. From her office in Bloomington, she hears from probation officers throughout the state.

"For example I just talked to the chief probation officer in a county where community correction and probation are completely separate and she told me they're happy that way," Brady says. "They think it works the best. They don't duplicate resources, and they work very well together."

A Possible Compromise

In response to the testimony and pushback from criminal justice officials, Sen.Young changed the language of Senate bill 171. Instead of forced consolidation, the bill now requires collaboration.

"We're not telling you how you have to write it," Young says. "We're just saying there's certain criteria you have to meet, but you write it the way you think it works best based on best practices and the evidence that shows that these things work in cutting recidivism and controlling our prison population while they're back at home."

In its current form, SB 171 gives counties three years to come up with a plan for their probation and community corrections departments to cooperate on cost saving measures before they can apply for additional funding from the state.

The bill passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House.

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