July 16, 2006 Indianapolis Star Op-Ed


Work Together to Fix the Criminal Justice System


MY VIEW: MONROE GRAY

As an elected official and president of the City-County Council, I will always put the health and safety of our citizens first.

We all know that the criminal justice system, including the jail-overcrowding problem, has been in need of improvement for more than 40 years. We in local government realized that an effective fix would require long-range planning and commitment by all of us to fund changes using scarce taxpayer monies. We resolved to make the necessary commitment to change in 2004.

As politically unpopular as it was, we voted to increase the County Option Income Tax to make funds available for improvements and committed that the added revenue would be used to address the criminal justice system's most urgent needs.

That required the City-County Council to make funding decisions based not only on its findings, but to also rely on input from the mayor, judges, county clerk, prosecutor, auditor, controller, sheriff, public safety officials, public defender and Criminal Justice Planning Agency. The Criminal Justice Planning Council offered the best opportunity for all of us to work together to better evaluate the system's needs in a nonpartisan forum and to reach a consensus on the priorities of each agency.

After many meetings and much research, the CJPC presented its funding requests to the council during the 2005 budget hearings for the 2006 budget. These requests included temporary, short-term solutions, including jail overcrowding and early releases, as well as long-term, more permanent solutions. Most criminal justice agencies identified areas of improvement needed. In addition to more jail space, the members recommended funding changes aimed at reducing the time spent in jail before a case goes to trial.

They identified a lack of courtrooms and judges, an effective bond strategy, bond amounts, public defender and prosecutor staffing needs, court staff, juvenile detention needs and probation officer shortages. The CJPC set priorities and tiers were established. Tier I included new courts, staff and an additional 100 jail beds. (Another 250 beds will be available by January because of the efforts of the CJPC and the sheriff.) Tier II and footnote items also were recommended. The council and controller's office were then able to identify ways to fund almost all of these recommendations.

Let's not forget the facts. People who have been found guilty and sentenced are not released early due to overcrowding. Most early releases are individuals who were arrested for nonviolent crimes and could not afford bail. Most would have been released if they could have paid.

As responsible elected officials, we are seeking long-term solutions; it takes determination to stay the course so that we may provide better safety for our citizens. Emotions of the public, community leaders and even the media are high, and the demand for answers has become deafening.

In such times, it is easy for people to blame one another and imply that the problem can be solved by simply adding temporary beds to our jail system. However, we cannot allow knee-jerk reactions to divert attention from the violent crime problem. The solution requires all of us working together.

As to what got us to this point, the prosecutor told me of his idea to house jail inmates at a state prison a couple of weeks before it was submitted. The council vice president and I advised him to contact the CFO and general counsel of the council to determine the fiscal impact and legal implications of the idea. We also suggested that he take his idea before the CJPC to seek their support. The prosecutor, council minority leader and I are members of the CJPC. The CFO and the general counsel were not contacted, he did not take his idea before the CJPC and thus the analyses were not conducted. Regardless, the proposal will now be introduced and be assigned to the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee for a hearing.