Prison sentencing and marijuana reform efforts are gaining momentum nationally, but don't expect Elkhart County to embrace those trends, at least while prosecutor Curtis Hill remains in office.
That was the message Hill delivered in his keynote speech at the Elkhart Chamber's 2013 annual meeting Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Lerner Theatre ballroom.
Hill took issue with remarks U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made in August in a speech to the American Bar Association, in which Holder decried the "mass incarceration" of blacks and their disproportionate share of the nation's prison population.
"What comes to mind when I hear mass incarceration is that we're poking people in the backs with bayonets and sticking them in pens without an opportunity for counsel, without an opportunity to be heard, without an opportunity for trial," Hill said. "We don't mass incarcerate. But that's what's being sold to the public, that we're putting the wrong people in prison."
Hill said people are constantly telling him that marijuana should be decriminalized, as it has been in Washington state and Colorado, because it is "not that bad." He said it's a myth that people are serving long prison terms for marijuana possession. What is happening, and he continues to support it, is offenders convicted of more serious crimes who have been released early are sent back to jail or prison if they are caught using marijuana because it's a violation of their probation terms, Hill said.
"A deal's a deal, and yet we have folks out there who say that's just not right," Hill said.
Hill said those who are hooked on methamphetamine and crack cocaine likely started by smoking marijuana.
"What it comes down to is what type of culture do you want?" he said. "I personally don't want a community where people are walking around in a haze and daze and a fog and a blur."
Hills said those who think there are too many low-level, nonviolent offenders filling prisons have formed an "interesting unholy alliance" involving the "pot smokers" and "conservative Republican fiscal hawks saying, 'Let's save some money.' It's an unusual mixture we're dealing with when money gets in the game."
Hill, who is black, acknowledged that blacks make up a larger share of the prison population than their share of the general population, but he said that doesn't mean laws should be changed. Blacks are disproportionately represented in prisons because they commit a disproportionate share of crimes, he said.
Poverty and lack of education play major roles in that, but so too does the fact that 72 percent of blacks are growing up in single-parent households, compared to 29 percent of whites, he said.
"I lock them up because I have to, because it's too late by the time they come to me," Hill said. "If you want to do something for children, we have to encourage young children to marry before they get children, and to raise their own children."
Hill then issued what seemed to be a call for more volunteering and mentoring among the business leaders and professionals gathered.
"We have to care about people," he said. "I'm not just talking about signing checks. This community's good for signing checks. It can make you feel pretty good sometimes to pull out a check and help an organization. But we're talking about getting real and getting engaged and getting involved with people to turn them around."
Crime and punishment might have seemed an unusual topic for the annual Chamber event. Hill was a last-minute replacement for an Indiana University South Bend economics professor who had originally agreed to give the keynote address but recently backed out, said Kyle Hannon, Chamber president.
But Hannon said Hill is a "very engaging" speaker and audience members gave him favorable marks afterward.
"I think there are thoughts on people's minds about safety and security lately, with the Martin's shootings," Hannon said. "It really gets to quality of place. Are you comfortable with what law enforcement is doing in the community?"