Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prison’s not for all

The Youngstown Vindicator
December 9, 2012

Ohio is a year into its justice reinvestment initiative — a crime fighting effort grounded in “evidence-based practices” that have gripped nearly one-third of the country. Last summer, when Gov. John Kasich signed Act 86 into law, supporters — and there were many — predicted that the measure would ease prison overcrowding and save taxpayers up to $78 million a year.

Sixteen states are in the midst of some form of justice reinvestment. The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center is the driving force behind each state’s effort to reduce prison costs and redistribute the savings to other facets of the criminal justice system.

Pennsylvania enacted its own version of justice reinvestment earlier this year. Act 122 hopes to save money by diverting state prisoners to county jails and eliminating inefficiencies in the paroling process.

Rhode Island, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Connecticut and Vermont all saw the number of state prisoners drop as a result of justice reinvestment initiatives, according to the Council of State Governments’ website.

The Dayton Daily News reported that Ohio’s prison population was on track to grow to 55,000 inmates by 2018, up from 50,334 at the time the legislation was passed. Ohio’s prison population peaked at 51,278 prior to the initiation of justice reinvestment legislation.

Alternative sentence

One component of Ohio’s new law that has had an impact on lowering the state’s inmate population over the past year is a provision that requires judges to sentence first-time offenders to something other than prison. If the conviction falls into certain categories, such as convictions involving low-level felonies or if the crime was not a violent offense — which includes some sex offenses — the court must impose an alternative sentence to prison.

Eliminating prison time for all fourth and fifth degree felonies does not sit well with some state prosecutors and judges. Prison is still an option in a limited number of cases involving a firearm or an act of violence; or when an offender had previously served jail time or had violated a bail condition.

“Whereas before we had more flexibility to get a prison sentence, now it’s almost impossible to get a prison sentence for fourth and fifth degree offenders, even repeat offenders,” Assistant Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings told the Marietta Times.

The Associated Press reported in September, following an open records request, 22 judges had asked the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for help finding beds for inmates who would have gone to prison prior to Act 86.

Underwhelming results

In the little more than one year since the legislation took effect the results are underwhelming. As of Nov. 13, 2012, there were 49,789 inmates in state prison, down only 545 inmates from time the law was enacted. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Director Gary C. Mohr told the Columbus Dispatch last spring that he had hoped to see a reduction to 49,168 inmates by July 1.

Ohio judges have reduced the average number of people sent to prison by more than 100 per month compared to last year, according to the Coshocton Tribune. Nearly two-thirds of Ohio’s counties sent fewer people to prison each month than the year before.

Mohr called the first-year results promising but told The Associated Press, “If I believed that we were going to stop at these numbers, I’d be pretty darn disappointed.” Mohr added, an interview with The Associated Press. “This gives us a sense of hope that we can continue to get a whole lot better.”

Ohio and Pennsylvania have hung high hopes on their respective justice reinvestment initiatives. Time will tell if either state can find that delicate balance between saving taxpayer dollars and preserving public safety.

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