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It's been obvious for a while that the biggest issue facing lawmakers after a sentencing reform bill passed earlier this year is what to do to help local officials serve offenders who now will be left in their communities.

But the importance of effective local programs became even clearer this week when a researcher told lawmakers that just a 1 percent reduction in the recidivism rate could save the state millions of dollars.

That's likely to get the attention of budget makers, who are always on the hunt for extra cash.

The key to this "savings," though, is that it needs to be reinvested into programs aimed at preventing recidivism. It's a circle. To save money, the state will need to invest money, said Roger Jarjoura, a researcher at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

And that can be scary for lawmakers, who like to know before they spend money that it will truly result in savings. That's not so easy in this case.

According to Paula Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati's Center for Criminal Justice, bad programs are worse than no programs. So not only do lawmakers have to figure out how much to spend, they have to determine the best way to spend it - and ensure that local officials will implement quality programs.

It's an issue that lawmakers are expected to tackle when they return to the Statehouse in January. They put it off last year as they passed big changes in the state's sentencing laws, which take effect July 1, 2014.

The new system will move Indiana's system of four felony classes to one that has six felony levels. It also requires offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of the 50 percent currently required.

Some drug and theft crimes will carry lighter sentences than under the current system and many of those offenders are expected to move into community-based programs rather than into prison.

The General Assembly didn't allocate much new money to those programs but a number of key lawmakers have acknowledged that will be necessary. That's why lawmakers are studying the issues before the next legislative session.

It's a tall order and the General Assembly has enlisted the IU Public Policy Institute to help. It will be completing a study of the existing resources of communities and the needs they're facing under the sentencing changes.

The institute also will look at programs that have worked well in other states.

The goal of the sentencing reform - which was supported by Republicans and Democrats - is to keep lower-level, nonviolent offenders out of prison. But over the long term, that won't work if those offenders' actions simply escalate until they commit a crime serious enough to put them in prison.

They key is intervening with community-based programs that put at least some of those offenders on a better track. Those will include addiction, mental health and jobs programs - and probably many others.

Without an investment in those areas, experts say these low level offenders will be returning to prison anyway.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.


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