October 11, 2004, Indianapolis Business Journal

Forget the $300-million Price Tag

October 11, 2004
System-wide strategic plan calls for criminal and juvenile justice administrator

By Peter Schnitzler

It calls for $300 million in new court construction by 2015, but that’s perhaps the least important recommendation in the Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council’s system-wide strategic plan for criminal and juvenile justice.

“We cannot separate these things, because they’re all intertwined,” said City-County Council President Rozelle Boyd, a Democrat. “It is my great, great hope that some persons who have already viewed things in terms of what the political fallout might be will put those political concerns aside.”

Researched and developed over the last year, the strategic plan attempts to wrestle with the severe underfunding and lack of comprehensive coordination in the local court, probation and community corrections system. It offers a series of 23 recommended fixes to implement in the short-, mid- and long-term future.

Much of its counsel is inexpensive and could significantly dent the problems that dog local criminal justice.

Whether its recommendations can realistically be achieved is another question. It requires public-safety stakeholders to remove their blinders, concede turf and take a mile-high view.

“I look to the Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council to take meaningful steps toward implementing the things they’ve paid a considerable amount of public money to put in a report,” said Marion County Chief Public Defender David Cook. “If they don’t, it’s just not good government and that commission is just a bunch of public officials who are sitting around.”

Thus far, the strategic plan has attracted attention mostly for echoing the Indianapolis and Marion County Bar Association’s expensive call for a new justice center to replace the cramped City-County Building. The fact that Marion County can’t find the $43,000 it owes Crowe Chizek and Co. LLC for the study also led many to dismiss its contents.

“The new justice-center concept got the bulk of the attention,” said Marion County Clerk Doris Anne Sadler, a Republican. “And a new $300 million center will be difficult to accomplish. But read the rest of the plan. The bulk are things that are very, very doable.”

Most of the strategic plan’s recommendations are detailed, practical steps toward increased communication and coordination among criminal justice agencies. Essentially, its advice is to make better use of the existing system through improved management.

The strategic plan calls for defined caseload standards, for example, as well as training opportunities for personnel to relieve chronic turnover that constantly slows the whole system down. It recommends a universal grant coordinator, and that criminal justice agencies develop their annual budgets in conjunction.

To achieve these kinds of goals, the strategic plan suggests creating a systemwide administrator. The likeliest choice to fill such a seat would be the Marion County Justice Agency director.

For years, Melinda Haag held the job. She recently stepped down to join Crowe Chizek. Her successor is attorney Diana Burleson.

“It just makes sense that you have a criminal justice guru, a person in the position of, and with the responsibility of looking for, where different agencies can have efficiencies, where communication gaps exist,” Cook said. “But I know this group of people well enough to know that people are going to be reluctant to give up authority.”

Increasing systemic efficiency and communication has been the Marion County Justice Agency’s goal since its inception in 1986, when it replaced the former Criminal Justice Coordinating Council local Republicans formed in the mid-1970s as the post-Watergate wave threatened to sweep them out of office.

Often labeled a “piecemeal” agency, MCJA has, by default, taken on many of the functions other public-safety agencies ignore, such as conditional release of defendants, failure-to-appear warrant management, community court and the computerized JUSTIS information system for case management.

The system-wide administrator position will be toothless if elected officials choose not to support its efforts.

“That’s why we have the planning council,” said City-County Council Minority Leader Phil Borst, a Republican. “The people around that table have the authority to do it, if they want to do it.”

More than money, criminal justice reform boils down to willpower.

“We’ve come up to this line on other occasions—never as close as we are now—but we need to step across it,” Cook said. “All of this just requires some ‘big kid’ positions on everybody’s part. If we don’t’ take that step, this is just going to go in the stack of reports.”

Criminal justice strategy

Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council's key recommendations:
• Create a system-wide administrator • Coordinate city and county budgets • Increase use of community corrections • Add court and office space • Establish a long-term plan to increase fiscal resources