Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ohio House of Representatives passes prison reform bill

Youngstown Vindicator
May 8, 2011

This past week the Ohio House of Representatives passed a measure to reduce the size of the state’s prison population and the enormous cost of running America’s sixth largest prison system.

The state currently houses approximately 51,000 offenders with capacity for only 38,389 inmates. Those numbers only scratch the surface in terms of the magnitude of Ohio’s prison problem. One in 25 adults in Ohio is either in prison or under community supervision.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (DRC) budget has increased by 246 percent since 1990. The corrections budget has gone from $432 million to $1.58 billion during the last 21 years. Prison personnel costs alone represent 25 percent of the state’s government employment expenditures.

House Bill 86 passed by a vote of 95-2. The bill mirrors Senate Bill 10 which has strong support from the new director of the DRC, Gary C. Mohr. During a recent Senate Judiciary Criminal Justice Committee hearing Mohr said, “I believe that they [Senate Bill 10] are critical to not only stabilizing Ohio’s prison population, but also to ensure that we are housing the right people in prison.”

GOP retribution

SB 10 lost some of its luster when the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Bill Seitz, fell out of favor with the GOP leadership in the state Senate. Seitz has referred to Gov. John Kasich’s governing style as a “Dirty Harry” routine. He was recently stripped of his committee chairmanship.

According to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, House Bill 86 provides for, among other things, the release of inmates who have served at least 85 percent of new sentences. This provision does not apply to any inmate serving a life sentence or any of a number of enumerated crimes of violence. The bill provides that an offender, serving a sentence for a first or second degree felony, may be placed under parole supervision with GPS monitoring.

The bill eliminates the sentencing disparities that exist for drug offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The bill provides a penalty that splits the difference between existing crack and powder cocaine penalties.

The reforms would include creating a new category for offenses involving trafficking in marijuana. The bill provides for potentially shorter mandatory prison terms for marijuana offenses. Under specifically defined circumstances, an offender who is guilty of marijuana trafficking may be sentenced to a prison term as provided for by the sentence guidelines.

The bill also provides that Intervention in Lieu of Conviction (ILC) be available to persons charged with certain theft or nonsupport offenses. ILC is a sentence diversion program available to offenders whose drug or alcohol usage was a factor leading to their criminal offense. Offenders alleging that drug or alcohol use contributed to the offense must be assessed by a certified program administrator in order to be eligible for ILC. The bill also authorizes ILC for an offender whose mental illness or retardation contributed to the criminal behavior.

Post-release control

Finally, the bill requires that a prisoner who is placed on post-release control from prison, by reason of earning 60 or more days of credit for participation in prison programming, shall be subject to GPS supervision by parole authorities for the first 14 days after release.

Gov. Kasich said that reforms contained in HB 86, “[A]re common sense improvements that are badly needed and I look forward to their quick passage in the Senate so I can sign them into law.” The Columbus Dispatch reported the legislation could save up to $78 million a year.

HB 86 does not address Ohio’s efforts to curtail corrections costs by selling off prisons. Kasich announced that the sale of five prisons to a private corrections company would put about $200 million in state coffers. The privatization of prisons appears to be inevitable in Ohio. Kasich’s choice to run DRC, Director Mohr, is a former state prison official and employee of a company that operates private prisons.

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