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Corrections Reform

Mitch Daniels: Heartland Reformer

Improving the State's Corrections System

Before Mitch Daniels was elected Governor in 2004, Indiana was in the midst of trends toward building more prisons, increasing corrections spending, and yet an increasing recidivism rate among inmates. The Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) was in dire need of major reforms.

Throughout the Daniels administration, DOC took several concrete strides to improve the state’s corrections system. Under Daniels’ leadership, DOC went through a kind of “reset” in its mindset and how its leaders envisioned the department’s role and purpose.

They addressed overcrowding, decreased unnecessary spending, and eventually evened out the number of incarcerated individuals, ending years of an ever-expanding prison population.  DOC’s Division of Youth Services (DYS) made numerous enhancements to the juvenile system during Governor Daniels’ two terms as well. Indiana’s recidivism rate has decreased over the years, and even though the rate has not declined at the pace Daniels had originally wished, DOC’s policies under Daniels have clearly positioned the state to continue to improve.

Climbing Out of the Bunker

In reforming the state’s corrections, Governor Daniels’ wanted first to introduce a new way of thinking at DOC and publicly address the agency’s challenges. Over the years, partially due to bad publicity stemming from inmate incidents and partially due to bureaucratic inertia, DOC had developed a bunker mentality.  The agency essentially kept its head down, interacted with as few outside organizations as possible, confined inmates as long as possible, and shied away from community worker programs.

This mentality had consequences. Both the prison population and the state’s spending on corrections had rapidly increased.  Between 2000 and 2008, the prison population in Indiana grew by 41 percent, a rate three times faster than other states in the region.  Governor Daniels sought to reverse this trend by opening up the department to outside partners and working publicly to ensure inmates served appropriate sentences, participated in community programs, and received services aimed as limiting re-offending as much as possible.

DOC thus began working with other state agencies to coordinate services. It began publishing correction statistics and adopted a new model of transparency about its goals and practices. It had never published recidivism data in the past, for instance. By doing so now, DOC keeps all partners in the community focused on the all-important task of reducing the number of re-offending individuals.

Overcrowding and Overspending 

When Daniels took office, the state had a newly constructed prison sitting empty because no operating funds had been appropriated for it. Meanwhile, because Indiana’s prisons were overcrowded, the state had contracted with a privately-run prison in Kentucky to handle the inmate overflow. In keeping with the competitive outsourcing environment Daniels was implementing government-wide, the management of the empty Indiana facility was put up for bid and awarded to a private contractor.  Daniels and the legislature worked to ensure both adequate appropriations and improved efficiency for the prisons going forward.

To achieve additional savings, DOC privatized each facility’s food services, instated 12-hour shifts that cut back on overtime and helped in recruiting efforts, and refurbished many of the older facilities for energy efficiency.  DOC implemented a new tracking system for juveniles placed within group homes. Previously, DOC found that juveniles had been retained in homes for much longer than necessary, leading to extraordinary costs. The new system ensured that timelines were managed in a much more disciplined way.  The agency outsourced inmate education in its adult facilities as well.  These efforts and others curbed the state’s corrections spending as well as ensured funds were saved for more worthwhile programs.

For all of the savings generated through competitive outsourcing and new technology systems, they are not enough to deal with the problem of overcrowding. Daniels wanted to ensure that counties had options for diverting low-level felons from prisons into alternative environments in which they could serve their sentences. DOC thus launched an effort to expand Community Corrections programming. To pay for them, DOC identified unspent community corrections dollars that were languishing in county coffers, and $11 million was gathered without the department having to request new funds.  The DOC then distributed the funds to expand existing programs as well as bring in new counties that had not yet adopted such programs. Participation in these programs more than doubled under Daniels, with communities agreeing to take back offenders and begin the reentry process more intentionally than they had in the past. As of 2012, only14 counties were not participating in the program, with seven of those planning to join within the coming year. The program has proved an effective solution to Indiana’s burgeoning prison population.

With the bunker mentality aside and effective programs in place, the prison population leveled off for the first time in years during the Daniels administration. The rate of growth slowed as the programs were put in place and finally leveled in 2010 and 2011. It even began to drop in early 2012.

Successful Reentry Programs for a Lower Recidivism Rate

Clearly, high recidivism rates contribute to a host of social costs. They also contribute to overcrowding. Part of the shift in mindset that Daniels had introduced into DOC’s culture was related to how the state dealt with reentry. Prior to the Daniels administration, preparation for reentry into society began only 90 days before the inmate’s release date.  Today, DOC commences the reentry process on day one of an inmate’s sentence in order to provide successful reintegration and reduce the chance an inmate will become a repeat offender.  In 2005, the National Institute of Corrections provided Indiana with some assistance in this task and chose the state to participate in their Transition from Prison to Community (TPIC) initiative. Through this initiative, DOC began to involve all of the state’s agencies in the reentry process. The services other agencies provide, after all, are essential to an inmate’s return to their community, and the DOC understood that much more than one agency should be involved in improving the state’s recidivism rate.  The BMV thus began working with inmates to provide driver’s licenses prior to their release, the Department of Housing started providing housing vouchers to indigent offenders, and Social Security benefits are now applied prior to inmates’ release dates so that the waiting period for benefits is reduced.  Numerous other agencies are involved as well, and in order to bolster the effort, DOC also trained its staff in this philosophy shift, as DOC had previously only been focused on safety and security and not the period following corrections.

Beyond different agencies working with DOC to provide services, the DOC also implemented programs during Governor Daniels’ administration to address the behavioral and character-related demands of life outside prison.  These programs include Purposeful Living Units Serve (PLUS), a faith and character-based program geared towards teaching moral and spiritual values as well as life skills.  The PLUS program now operates in 15 facilities, and the program has been proven to produce inmates who do not return, thus impacting the recidivism rate.  DOC also implemented Clean Living Is Freedom Forever (CLIFF), a program geared towards inmates battling methamphetamine addiction.  Inmates with good conduct but a history of substance abuse can choose to participate in this program.  Those individuals then complete their sentences in a conducive, rehabilitative environment and develop a comprehensive reentry plan that includes relapse prevention strategies.

These and related efforts to connect inmates with programming, especially at the local level, were all aimed at reorienting ex-offenders to the possibilities that exist outside of the life they knew prior to offending.

It took a shift in DOC’s organizational mindset regarding reentry to begin to see success in this area. DOC’s change was a part of the process of getting the department out of its bunker and into partnership with a range of external agencies and assets that were likely to provide the kind of help that an insular department simply cannot achieve.

The recidivism rate began to decrease as a result of this shift.  In 2008, the it decreased for the third consecutive year, resulting in 37.4 percent of offenders being recommitted to DOC within three years of their release date.  The rate stood at 37.8 percent in 2007, and 39.2 percent in 2006.   While the recidivism rate is still in need of vast improvement, the area is now in the position to do so thanks to the policy initiatives put in place over Governor Daniels’ administration.

Juvenile Services

DOC made great strides with juvenile services as well.  Under Governor Daniels, DOC first changed the manner in which juvenile services receive funding.  Previously, counties had to pay half of the costs associated with housing juveniles, which amounted to a heavy burden on those counties.  Many even became indebted to the state. Daniels had the state take on the cost of juvenile services, which in turn enabled DOC to exert greater oversight over the length of stay of the juveniles.  DOC knew that while correctional time is beneficial, there is also a tipping point after which continuing to house them is unproductive. Returning youths to community programs in the shortest amount of time possible became an important goal.

Since Governor Daniels’ administration, the population of juveniles in residence decreased from approximately 1,000 to below 550. As a result, DOC was able to close two juvenile facilities, which provided budgetary relief as well. To achieve these results, DYS established the Projected Program Completion Date Program through which each facility works with their students to create a program and set goals based on each student’s needs.  As the individuals achieve their goals and demonstrate a good faith effort, they earn points, which in turn helps them reach their projected release date.  Setting such goals has demonstrated to have a positive impact on the students as they have an objective to work towards to encourage them during their time in DYS.  To shorten student’s stay time, DYS also targeted the use of community-based treatment.  Once within their community, DYS ensures youths received “wraparound” support, guidance, and services.  The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDIA) of the Annie E. Casey Foundation is one such project that brings teens back into their communities to participate in programs, and in 2009, Indiana embarked to expand the program statewide.

The success of Daniels’ corrections reforms can be summed up by noting the value of culture change. DOC’s reversal in its collective mindset about working with outside partners to manage successful transitions in offenders’ lives made a significant, lasting difference in how Indiana understands the purpose of incarceration.