20 years: 'Drugs & Crime,' then and now 

By Bill Craig

It was twenty years ago this month that a small group of us started up NUVO, an "alternative publication" that would challenge the status quo in Indianapolis. Politically, the city was run by a hard line right-wing city council, headed by former CIA officer, Beurt SerVaas, and former clergyman, Mayor William Hudnut, who was a moderate Republican. Like Dante's Ninth Circle of hell, it was an alliance of politicians and holy men.

The title of our first cover story in NUVO was "Drugs & Crime: Why are so many trapped in our criminal justice system?" It addressed the human outcomes of that sudden change in the city's mission statement. It referred to the always-increasing number of drug offenders who were being mass processed through the county's criminal court system only to be turned loose to start the process over again. Indiana's overcrowded prison system had simply run out of space. The cover photo on that first issue showed a defendant walking through a revolving door into/out of the City County Building.

Marion County was definitely not one of the success stories in the nation's war on drugs. Ballyhooed in Washington, the drug war was declared lost by a bipartisan group of Indy officials working inside the system in the early nineties. Police, prosecutors, court officers, defense lawyers, all decried the emphasis on and funding of enforcement over treatment as an approach to breaking the cycle. The key players were in total agreement.

Steven Goldsmith, the county's outspoken prosecutor (and later its two-term mayor), told NUVO, "We're doing an atrocious job on this. We could make this a much safer city if we would provide treatment for indigent offenders. Indiana has been very short sighted and, to a lessor extent, so has the city." He cited national studies showing how overall crime rates were significantly reduced in areas with treatment and aftercare for drug addicts as an alternative to incarceration.

Deputy Prosecutor Tim Mosby, Goldsmith's point man on drug cases, was blunt in his assessment. "They come into court, are convicted, sentenced, punished, and come back to start the process all over again." The term "revolving-door policy" was the way Mosby described the system as it handled drug defendants.

"I'd have to say that that 85 percent would be a conservative estimate of how many of them come back on drug charges again. You can't throw money at this and make it go away. I'm convinced that enforcement is never going to solve this problem. Enforcement is barely keeping us afloat," said Mosby. He added that education was necessary to change some basic thinking in society about drugs. That would take some time.

Although it took another ten years or so to get started, Indy's court system finally did come around to Goldsmith and Mosby's way of thinking. They established the Marion County Re-Entry Court. The court's mission statement reads, "To reduce recidivism and promote public safety by delivering a coordinated, accountable substance abuse treatment program designed to assist offenders with successful reintegration." The county now provides access to intense treatment services in order to break the cycle of drug addiction and crime in Marion County.

Twenty years later, many still use the phrase Mosby coined, calling the revolving door handling of chemically-dependent offenders one of the biggest crises in the criminal justice system.

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