Friday, February 4, 2011

Ohio Revisits Criminal Justice Reforms

Budget Driven Reforms a Radical Departure from Recent 'Tough on Crime' Agenda

This week Ohio state Senator Bill Seitz introduced, with bipartisan support, Senate Bill 10, a criminal justice reform plan. The legislation is the culmination of a sweeping criminal-justice reform plan proposed by the Council of State Governments and other groups.

The legislation has the backing of Governor John Kasich and Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court Maureen O'Connor. The bill was also enthusiastically embraced by other state officials.

It was long ago that the state's much-heralded 1996 Truth in Sentencing Law banished "good-time" provisions and established fixed-term sentences for most offenses. In 2002, Ohio voters soundly rejected a statewide ballot issue advocating "treatment instead of incarceration" for nonviolent drug offenders, reported the Columbus Dispatch.

Since then the prison population has grown to nearly 51,000--about 33 percent over capacity--and state money for prisons has decreased. If the reform package is fully implemented, the plan promises savings of $62 million over four years and a reduction in the state prison population to its 2007 level. It also would avoid the need to spend hundreds of millions on prison construction and operations when the state faces a potential $8billion budget shortfall, according to the Dispatch.

A state budget crisis has softened the "tough on crime" mentality of many elected officials. However, not everyone has jumped on board. The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association still has concerns, principally because of the earned-credit provision. John Murphy, head of the association, told the Dispatch he is sympathetic to financial concerns, but that provision violates the Truth in Sentencing Law.

"Public safety is the first responsibility of the state of Ohio," Murphy said. "You don't write sentences to fit the budget."

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