One county in southern Indiana sends more people to prison than San Francisco does

The New York Times recently had a fascinating story on how Dearborn County, Indiana, sends more people to prison than almost any other county in the nation even though it has a population of only about 50,000.

"By 2014, Dearborn County sentenced more people to prison than San Francisco or Westchester County, N.Y., which each have at least 13 times as many people," the Times said.

How is this possible? Prosecutors are elected, which gives them a big incentive to be tough on crime, even at a time when states are trying to steer people away from prison:

A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America's prison population for the first time since the 1970s. From 2006 to 2014, annual prison admissions dropped 36 percent in Indianapolis; 37 percent in Brooklyn; 69 percent in Los Angeles County; and 93 percent in San Francisco.

For the most part, the motivation behind reducing mass incarceration is cost: Lawmakers eager to cut budgets are loath to spend the massive amounts of money required for a system that has been shown over and over again not to work. Instead, they're steering nonviolent offenders to rehab and other programs designed to get them back into productive society and out of state custody.

Indiana, where Republicans who campaigned on getting tough on crime dominate the state government, was one of at least 40 states to enact laws in recent years to reduce the number of people sent to prison. But that hasn't stopped prosecutors in mostly rural, mostly white counties from continuing to mete out harsh punishments.

'I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,' Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. 'That's how we keep it safe here. . . .  My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can't make me. The legislature can't make me.'

But experts say the disparity in sentences is so stark that it undercuts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. For example, in a graphic, the Times showed how a man convicted of selling 6.8 grams of heroin who would have been sentenced to zero to five years in Brooklyn, New York, Cincinnati or San Francisco was sentenced to 35 years in Dearborn County.

'Letting local prosecutors enforce state laws differently throws all notions of equality under the law out the window,' said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates reducing incarceration rates. 'This data puts governors and legislative leaders on notice that if they want to put criminal justice reforms into effect, they need to look at how prosecutors use and abuse their discretion.'

Another problem? Rural taxpayers — and the officials who represent them — are often willing to fund enforcement and punishment, but not treatment.

Dearborn County recently spent $11.5 million to double the size of the county jail and approved another $11 million to expand the courthouse, the Times reported, but drug treatment programs in the jail, where 90 percent of the inmates have a drug addiction, can only serve less than 1 in 5 of them.

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[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]