Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reform Sentencing and Save

Youngstown Vindicator
October 3, 2010

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections’ budget for 2011 is $1.7 billion. The ODRC pays $66.31 per day per inmate. With more than 51,000 inmates in Ohio prisons, the state pays about $3.8 million a day to house offenders. To put that in perspective, in 2009, Boardman Township spent approximately $12 million in operating costs — a little more than three days worth of state incarceration costs.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report, Reform Cannot Wait: A Comprehensive Examination of the Cost of Incarceration in Ohio from 1991-2010. The report is alarming. Ohio’s prison population has quintupled since 1975. Ohio is operating its prisons at 133-percent of capacity and projections indicate that the prison system will be at 141-percent capacity by 2018.

Ohio actually experienced a very modest decline in prison population last year; however, the current rate of incarceration is not sustainable. The state will be forced to build new prisons at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The personnel costs to maintain, manage and supervise additional facilities would surely push the corrections budget over $2 billion a year.

Criminal reform

The ACLU report touts Ohio Senate Bill 22 as a “clear first step towards criminal reform in Ohio.” The bill, written by State Sen, Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, is estimated to save $13.7 million by: increasing earned credit which could reduce the amount of time an offender stays in prison; increased use of community based corrections; an overhaul of Ohio’s drug laws; expanding diversion programs which keep people out of prison; reform medical release procedures for inmates with health problems, and implement inmate re-entry programs.

Seitz was sure to point out that his legislation is for lower level offenders. Violent gun-toting offenders will not benefit from Seitz’s legislation. Does that mean that any offender who has ever committed a violent crime will not be entitled to early release?

Most offenders who are in Ohio prisons have committed multiple offenses and have violent offenses in their past even if the offense that landed them in prison is not necessarily violent. Offenders serving non-violent state prison sentences have usually earned their way to state prison by having a history of offending.

Does Seitz’s legislation eliminate offenders who used a weapon or possessed a weapon? Does the legislation consider large quantity drug dealing a non-violent offense?

Most efforts to deal with prison crowding on the back-end, after sentencing, have had little impact on prison crowding. Those efforts have been more about political posturing than meaningful reform. After the violent offenders, sex offenders, gun offenders, and high risk offenders have been eliminated the “reform” legislation applies to very few offenders, normally the offenders who are already getting out of prison in an expedited manner.

There is no question that prison overcrowding is one of the most significant problems in Ohio and nearly every other state in America. Meaningful reform must come at the front-end, prior to sentencing. The ACLU report alludes to sorting offenders by their risk to public safety. That sorting process should happen prior to sentencing. Judges should have at their disposal evidence-based assessment tools that can help determine an offender’s risk of reoffending.

Sentencing guidelines

Those assessment scores could be factored into sentencing guidelines. An offender’s crime, her history of offending and her risk to the community could be utilized to mold a sentence that would insure the most dangerous offenders spend the most time in prison.

This concept is not new. The Commonwealth of Virginia has used risk assessment in sentencing for 15 years. The higher the assessment score, the less likely the offender will be diverted from prison. In the last dozen years, the United States has witnessed a 26-percent increase in incarceration rates, while Virginia has realized an increase of only 6 percent. During the same time period crime has dropped by an impressive 24-percent nationwide. Virginia, with its spiraling prison population has experienced and even better 26-percent dip in crime.

So why haven’t other states replicated Virginia’s model? Politics. It is difficult to get elected or re-elected by talking about shortening prison sentences. Tinkering with earned time, or re-entry or even parole can provide some political cover. Tinkering with sentencing is too risky for most policymakers.

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