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Indiana program to get offenders treatment, not prison cell

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Indiana’s first statewide program that pays for addiction and mental health treatment for convicted felons sent to community corrections instead of jail or prison is now underway in a push that’s targeting uninsured offenders.

Courts, probation and parole officers and community correction managers on could begin referring eligible felons on Nov. 1 to designated drug and mental health treatment centers instead of to jail or prison.

Family and Social Services Administration spokeswoman Marni Lemons said it’s too early to know how many were referred since the initiative began or how many will eventually take part, but it’s expected to number in the thousands.

The new initiative, called Recovery Works, follows sweeping changes to Indiana’s criminal code which took effect last year that are sending more low-level, nonviolent felony criminals to community corrections and jails.

“That’s thousands of people who will no longer go to prison but will be supervised in the community. And so the discussion became ‘What do we do with them?’” said Kevin Moore, the director of the FSSA’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction, which is administering the Recovery Works program.

Sixteen percent of inmates in the U.S. prison population have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and assessments by the Indiana Department of Correction show that more than 80 percent of offenders in prison need treatment for drug addictions.

But many offenders have little money and no health insurance to pay for needed treatments.

Under the Recovery Works program, which will receive $10 million in state funding its first year and double that in the second year, offenders will receive up to $2,500 in vouchers for mental health or addiction assessments, treatments and drug screenings, or to pay for transportation to get them to and from treatment centers.

Eligible felons must be at least 18 years old, have income under 200 percent of the federal poverty level and not have any other source of health insurance.

Moore said the FSSA sees the program as “a kind of bridge” to provide them with treatment until they can obtain Medicaid coverage, sign up for the Healthy Indiana Plan – the state’s expanded health care program for low-income residents – or get some other type of insurance. He expects all 25 of the state’s community health centers to eventually join the effort, as well as many of Indiana’s 180 addiction counseling providers.

The $30 million in funding is just a start and lawmakers will need to keep funding those services – at higher amounts – to meet what’s expected to be a growing need in the coming years, said State Rep. Linda Lawson, who co-authored the bill.

“We hope this will always be part of our budget, that this would be a priority,” the Hammond Democrat said.

She added that studies and legal experts say offenders who stay near relatives in their home communities and get treatment are much less likely to commit future crimes.

The program signals a “fundamental shift” away from punishment toward a focus on what might be underlying causes of criminal acts, said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.

“This is an approach we’ve never tried before in Indiana and I think it’s long overdue,” he said.

Franklin County Sheriff Ken Murphy said taxpayers who might be angry that state money is going to such services need to realize Indiana’s drug problems are serious and are fueling crime, such as break-ins by addicts seeking money or items to steal and pawn to buy more drugs.

“It’s something the public has to wake up and understand. This problem affects everybody,” he said.