FROM THE DESK OF SENATOR LONG

I have just been appointed the Chairman of the Forensic Diversion Study Commission, which is charged with the duty to track the ongoing efforts of our local criminal justice system to modernize their dealings with both the mentally ill and drug addicts. This program has the full support of the new Daniels’ administration, and will take on greater and greater importance as the key programs in our criminal justice system devolves down from the state level to the local level.

We will be studying what counties such as Lake, Allen, Marion, and St. Joseph have been doing with these programs the past year, and will make recommendations for changes or enhancements of the programs based upon what we learn.

I thought I would share an article with you that was sent to newspapers all around the state last year to explain the program and what it can mean for our state, our citizens, and especially for public safety.

 

INDIANA TAKING THE LEAD IN PRISON REFORM

A little known but important change in Indiana law took effect on July 1 that will likely have a momentous impact upon Indiana’s state and local correctional systems. Known as Forensic Diversion, the concept will put Indiana on the cutting edge of the national movement to deal more effectively with the dual problems of incarcerating both the mentally ill, and non-violent substance abusers.

Reliable national statistics show that at least 13% of the inmates in our federal and state penal institutions suffer from a serious mental illness. Many of these individuals had never received proper treatment prior to their committing a crime; and many, because of costs, still do not receive medical treatment that could likely help them avoid the criminal behavior they exhibit.

Likewise, our state prisons are filling up with non-violent substance abusers, often because their underlying addiction has not been properly treated, leading to a continuing pattern of criminal behavior. Again, statistics show that, properly treated, there is a better than 50% chance that these individuals can be rehabilitated, thus lowering the crime rate and saving taxpayers large sums of money by eliminating repeat prison terms.

Indiana, like most states, is suffering from huge budget deficits, with Education, Medicaid, and Corrections being the three high-profile areas where costs have risen most rapidly. Education is the state’s top priority, and will therefore be the last option for budget cuts. Medicaid reform is badly needed and will have to be enacted, but even so, many costs are mandated by the Federal government, and thus cannot be cut. This leaves Corrections as the one area where the State could find significant savings.

Any genuine savings for the State Corrections system will require an increasing reliance upon the Community Corrections systems run by our counties, as the State seeks ways to divert non-violent inmates convicted of low-level crimes away from its penal facilities. For that reason, it is anticipated that Community Corrections will be running the Forensic Diversion program for most of our counties.

Indiana’s Forensic Diversion program was created in 2003 in the worst possible way: it was stuck into the budget bill at the last minute, without opportunity for public comment or debate within the Legislature, by key members of the O’Bannon Administration who sought budget relief, as well as, better treatment for the mentally ill. The problem was that the language inserted into the budget bill was poorly drafted, and created potentially disastrous problems for public safety and the local correctional system. For example, there was little or no judicial oversight; no definitions for mental illness or a substance abuser; and no way to pay for the program. A violent felon could conceivably have been run through this Forensic Diversion program, and be out on the streets only a few months later at the recommendation of his substance abuse counselor, without any input from the Judge or Prosecutor, and without consideration of the public’s safety. Clearly, this system could not be allowed to stand.

So last year, under a collaborative effort by Senate and House members with an expertise in the criminal code, as well as, representatives of Prosecutors, Public Defenders, the Judiciary, and mental health agencies, a new, well-conceived, fully accountable Forensic Diversion program was forged.

 

To be eligible, an individual must be:

an adult diagnosed with a mental illness or addictive disorder;

charged with a crime that is not a violent offense (for example, no murderers; sex offenders; kidnappers; drug dealers; or serious thieves are allowed);

there can be no conviction for a violent offense in the previous 10 years;

the individual must request the program and treatment;

the court must order the diversion into the program, but only after a proper evaluation is conducted;

and if allowed to enter the program, an individual cannot be released without a court order.

 

An individual may be allowed into the program before conviction of a crime, but only if they agree to plead guilty ahead of time. The court will then withhold judgment pending results of the treatment program. If the individual successfully completes the program, the charges can be dropped. If they fail to complete the program, they will be sentenced and incarcerated.

A judge can also place a qualifying individual into the program after a conviction, though the individual’s record will likely remain, and probation will be likely even with successful treatment.

Treatment, depending upon the crime, could last up to three years. A long time, yes, but some addictions will take that long to cure.

Prior to the law being passed, there were several counties in Indiana that had already created innovative treatment programs on their own, including Allen, Marion, and Lake. These counties are pushing ahead with their Forensic Diversion programs under the guidance of the new law. The state will also establish as many as eight new forensic diversion pilot programs in other counties that have created successful community corrections programs. Counties that do not have such programs will be required to put together a Forensic Diversion plan, but will not have to enact a program until there is proper funding.

When it comes to innovation, Indiana is often accused of lagging behind the rest of the nation. In the case of Forensic Diversion, Hoosiers may well be at the front of the line, and our new law is likely to be copied by many other states in the next few years.

Protecting the public from violent crime must still be the top priority of our correctional system. Yet we must also strive to improve our dismal record of rehabilitating those who commit crimes because of their substance abuse problems, or because they are seriously mentally ill. If the Forensic Diversion program is successful, our citizens will live safer lives, our taxpayers will pay less for government, and our correctional system will have found a way to deal much more humanely, and effectively, with the scourge of drug addiction and mental illness.

The Waynedale News Staff

Sen. David Long

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