September 21, 2004 Indianapolis Star Editorial


Justice plan takes a big first step

September 21, 2004
Our position is: The plan proposed by Marion County's judges is a solid first step in reforming the criminal justice system.

Except when forced to act by judges, Marion County's leaders have been slow to address overcrowded jails, overworked public defenders and underpaid prosecutors.

Now, the county's Criminal Justice Planning Council is laying out a 10-year plan to get the justice system on the right track. While the plan doesn't address all the troubles that have befallen the system, it is a good first step toward reform.

With the exception of merging three agencies a decade ago to form the public defender's office, the county has spent more time on penny-pinching than on adequate planning. The consequences of such neglect have been evident in recent years as judges have been forced to intervene. In July, for example, Superior Court Presiding Judge Cale Bradford ordered the county to scrounge up $500,000 for the public defender's office.

County leaders are continuing to nickel-and-dime judges and jails. Last week, the City-County Council slashed the courts' 2005 budget by $1.9 million. The prosecutor's budget also was cut by $500,000. The long-term neglect of a basic function of local government, public safety, has given rise to numerous problems within the county's criminal justice system.

So in that light the fact that the Criminal Justice Planning Council actually came up with a long-range plan is most welcome. More important, the council put some economic thought into its proposals.

While the plan calls ultimately for the construction of a new courthouse, the council also wants to better coordinate and allot the sparse amount of space that the courts already have. That approach would go a long way in determining the judiciary's true needs for more real estate.

Also recommended: eliminating the pretrial services division. The council also favors presenting the criminal and juvenile justice budgets as one to give the City-County Council a full picture of the needs.

The plan unfortunately doesn't adequately address how to deal with juvenile detention or hiring more prosecutors and public defenders. But that may be too much to ask for in a first bite.

The council has moved beyond simply looking at the short term. It's an approach that has been lacking in Marion County for far too long.