January 2, 2005 Indianapolis Star

Letter to the Editor
Quality of Life Depends on Public Safety

January 2, 2005
My View: Clifford A. Ong

While the Marion County Jail has been under federal court order to avoid overcrowding, five people have died at the hands of pre-trial release defendants. Add to that statistic the countless large and small crimes that have been committed by others that did not warrant public outrage.

To take control of our public safety problems, the city and a host of criminal justice agencies and officials held a summit to discuss the jail overcrowding, case management and alternatives to incarceration. The speakers reflected the diversity and complexity of solutions.

Those officials who have no authority to raise taxes wanted to raise taxes. Those who have authority to raise taxes pleaded that they have little expertise on the criminal justice system, a nod that not all remedies have been exhausted. And almost everyone applauded the use of alternatives to incarceration, especially for non-violent offenders.

Everyone that is except the prosecutor's office, who correctly pointed out that without jail beds, alternatives to incarceration are not really alternatives. After all, if you violate pretrial release by taking drugs, what's the incentive to keep clean if the judge can't lock you up?

Likewise, Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson suggested that the judiciary needs to rely on proven data in determining who should or should not be released. Incarceration pending trial shouldn't rely on reading tea leaves or Willie Horton stories.

Knowing that we can do better than a federal consent decree and that our quality of life hinges on public safety, I would suggest that we adopt four core goals.

1. We need to broaden the scope of players. Every local social service agency needs to put crime prevention on their agenda. Arguably there is no better crime prevention than a strong family, and you can't talk about the jail supply without talking about the demand.

2. We must establish a meaningful goal for case management. What if our goal was to halve the time it takes to complete a case? That creates less bed space, closure for the victims and swift justice for the accused. Others who think speed is a disservice to justice could choose other goals. Regardless, hiring people and building jails is not a goal, it is a solution, and to discuss solutions without a goal is throwing money at the problem.

3. We must put teeth into our court's authority, and nowhere is this reflected better than in our epidemic of failures to appear. In 2004 there were more than 20,000 failures to appear in court. If our courts can't even get defendants to show up, regardless of the excuse, what gives us confidence that they are in control of a population living on the edge?

4. We should rethink the way we incarcerate people. I suggest we relieve the trial judges of pretrial release and probation violations and create a panel of independent judges similar to a parole board. In this manner, our judges can stop wasting precious court time on non-substantive hearings and delegate their decisions to a panel of judges who can impartially manage the system and develop clear and consistent policies for release.

The summit brought forth more than two dozen suggestions and a handful of committees organized along generic goals. But a revolving door of ideas will not solve the problem. To get beyond our federal order on bed space, our criminal justice system needs to focus on core competencies and our strengths. With the right leadership, we can provide our own solution.

Ong is an attorney with Krieg DeVault and former director of homeland security for the state of Indiana.