Sunday, January 2, 2011

Don't be reckless

Youngstown VindicatorSunday, January 2, 2011

Ohio is facing an $8 billion budget shortfall in the next biennial budget to commence July 1, 2011. Gov.-elect John Kasich must present his budget for FY2012-2013 to the Ohio General Assembly by March 15.

Earlier this month Kasich said everything is on the table when it comes to closing the budget gap, everything but raising taxes. Kasich told The Columbus Dispatch, “Corrections reform is critical. It’s one of the big cost sinks that we have.”

Ohio prisons are housing approximately 51,000 inmates in facilities that were built for 38,389 inmates. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections employs more than 13,000 men and women. The prison system accounts for one of the largest single state expenditures, representing roughly 7 percent of the state’s $54 billion budget.

Kasich has said that Ohio has too many people in prison. “We have a system in Ohio where I think [a little] less than half of the people in our prisons are in there for less than a year. We have people who are check kiters and don’t pay child support and we are locking them up in the state pen,” Kasich said at a press conference in early December.

Cost reduction

He said prison costs could be drastically reduced by rethinking whether non-violent offenders, including those who commit drug-related offenses, should be sent for short stays in state prison. According to the Toledo Blade, Kasich said people who commit such crimes are not a public threat and shouldn’t be imprisoned at high cost to taxpayers alongside murderers. “Why do I want to put somebody that doesn’t pay child support in a state prison ... instead of putting them somewhere and forcing them on a work detail or home confinement or county jail, in a place where the public is safe and yet we can get our costs?” he said. “To me, that’s low-hanging fruit.”

Kasich was right about the large number of offenders serving less than a year prison. The reference to check kiters and deadbeat dads was more political rhetoric than substance. The Dispatch reported that the state prison census showed there were 51 offenders behind bars for writing bad checks and 372 for failure to pay child support, less than 1 percent of the prison population.

How does Kasich get to the low-hanging fruit? It won’t be easy. The state Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections said that even if funding were maintained at 100 percent of current levels, it would have to cut 339 corrections positions and close prisons. According to The Dispatch, a 10 percent budget cut would mean the layoff of more than 2,500 employees and prison closings. It could mean eliminating funding for 972 halfway-house beds, 1,547 community-diversion offenders and 2,200 offenders in city and county jail programs funded by the state. Cuts like that would impact public safety.

How have other states dealt with the issue of growing prisons and shrinking budgets?

California’s example

According to Governing Magazine, California has reduced the number of parole violations for low-risk parolees. Troubled parolees are diverted to community sanctions instead of prison. California has reduced its prison population by several thousand inmates. Texas took money earmarked for new prisons and invested in treatment programs and diversionary sentences that kept low-risk offenders out of prison.

Nearly two decades ago, Virginia began using risk assessments at the time of sentencing to divert low-level, non-violent offenders to community programs as opposed to state prison. The result has been closed prisons and reduced violent crime rates. Michigan reduced its state inmate population by more than 10 percent through the reduction of prison stays for good inmates, reducing parole violations and comprehensive re-entry services.

None of these promising prison reduction programs came as the result of arbitrarily slashing correction budgets. Corrections reform is critical, but the reform must be well thought out and supported by evidence-based practices

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