December 10, 2006 Indianapolis Star Editorial


Steps to a Safer City
Bolster crime-fighting tactics, deal with causes


Mayor Bart Peterson and other city officials began overhauling the public safety system long before a spree of 19 murders bloodied Indianapolis' streets in early August, forcing them into crisis mode. But police consolidation, more money for public safety and the addition of new courts by themselves won't be enough to turn around decades of neglect.

The Star Editorial Board offers solutions to make neighborhoods safer, improve the criminal justice system and deal with the underlying causes of crime.

Re-enlist in fight against crime

Recent moves by Mayor Peterson to boost public safety spending, along with soon-to-be-completed police consolidation, offer the opportunity to make significant advances in the fight against crime. The failure to do so in the past is reflected in statistics from neighborhoods patrolled by the Indianapolis Police Department.

About 1,400 larcenies were reported in August, a 19-percent increase over the same month in 2001. The 15 homicides reported within IPD in August were nearly four times those reported in the same month five years ago.

Officers also have been less successful in solving cases. Just 62 percent of aggravated assault cases were solved during the first eight months of this year versus a rate of 67 percent in the same period in 2001. The percentage of larcenies solved declined by more than four points.

Indianapolis' burglary rate rose 44 percent between 2000 and 2005; it's now approaching Detroit's rate.

These aren't mere statistics. Each murder reflects a life lost -- such as 17-year-old Eric Hendricks, shot in the back earlier this month while attending a party. Every theft means an economic loss, not only for the victim but also for a city trying to protect its quality of life and retain residents.

Solutions

Add more cops to the beat: Some 965 full-time officers are still needed to police parts of the city outside of Center Township. Sheriff Frank Anderson, who will oversee the combined police force, must develop creative financial packages to bring them on board.

Continue juvenile justice reform: Superior Court Judge Marilyn Moores' directive prohibiting schools from referring students accused of fighting helped solve the long-running problem of children being brought into court for matters best resolved by schools and families. But much work remains in rebuilding a juvenile court and detention center plagued for years by heavy caseloads, poor hiring decisions and unsafe living conditions for young offenders.

Focus on the "broken windows'' theory of crime: Vandalism, vagrancy and abandoned buildings stoke the flames of criminal behavior. Fixing smaller problems in the community can head off more serious incidents.

Streamline criminal justice system

A 12-percent decline in the population at the Marion County Jail complex is one sign that emergency measures passed in August are working to reduce overcrowding.

But further reductions in the jail population-- and a reduction in repeat offenders-- won't happen as long as alternatives to incarceration remain scarce.

As far as Superior Court Judge William Young is concerned, the low-level drug offenders who come through his court could have a better shot of rebuilding their lives -- and staying out of prison -- if they were to serve time in supervised work-release centers where they could stay employed and get drug treatment. But the county has only 133 spots in work release, so offenders must wait an average of 11 months, often in state prison, before getting into the program. "Eleven months in prison is pretty much enough to ruin them," Young says.

Home monitoring through the use of ankle bracelets is another viable alternative. But because the county's poorly funded Community Corrections agency has only 23 officers to supervise nearly 2,000 offenders, or one officer for 85 cases, monitoring is lax. As a result, 21 percent of convicts in the program violate the terms of their release

"You have to have these middle-ground alternatives. And we don't have enough of them," Young says.

Solutions

Secure state funds for work-release beds: Another 170 work-release beds could be added if the state Department of Correction picks up the tab. Not only would it help Marion County with jail overcrowding, the state also would save money by paying $25 daily for those beds versus $60 for each day in prison.

Fix the bond process: Bonds are often set too high on low-level cases, which contributes to lengthy jail stays. Ditching the current bond matrix system for one based on the circumstances of the charges would speed up justice and ensure that the right suspects are behind bars.

Build a new courthouse and jail complex: As Presiding Judge Cale Bradford points out, the City-County Building is not only outdated for its use as a courthouse but also unsafe for citizens exposed to a parade of suspects through public hallways. Using part of the increase in county-option income tax revenues to help pay for a new criminal justice center is overdue.

Combat underlying causes of crime

A profile of the average offender in the Marion County Community Corrections' 2005 annual report offers a sobering example of the role the dropout crisis and other social ills contribute to rising crime.

The average offender in its programs, including work release and home detention, is a black or white male in his 20s. He's also an unemployed high school dropout.

In fact, 63 percent of the offenders in the agency's programs have never finished school.

Dropouts are three times more likely to land in prison than those who completed high school, according to a 2004 study by Princeton University researcher Bruce Western.

This contributes to other social ills that stoke rising crime.

Because dropouts are likely to land in prison and have low odds of employment, they are far less likely to marry or form close bonds with their children. And because of the difficulties in gaining employment, their only route to sustaining themselves economically is through crime. Not only are their families rendered unstable, but so are the communities in which they live.

Solutions

Overhaul public schools: Seven of the state's worst high schools in guiding students from their freshmen to senior year are in Marion County. Turning around those schools and their home districts will go a long way in keeping more children on the path to graduation -- and out of prison.

Better coordinate funding of community programs: The city had never kept a comprehensive list of the community groups it funds, much less coordinated their efforts, until Mayor Bart Peterson blue-ribbon panel on crime began doing so this year. As a result, the city hasn't generated the best return possible from a strong civic sector that can aid in reducing crime.

Become a mentor to youth: Organizations such as the Center for Leadership Development offer ways for citizens to keep young men and women off the path to crime. But more volunteers are needed.