Ohio Prison Reform, Pulled in Two Directions


Smart criminal justice reform doesn't happen overnight. Parallel proposals in Ohio present tidy examples of the right and wrong ways states are seeking to reduce crime, shrink prisons and save taxpayers money.

Let's start with the good news. A bill that would help Ohio shrink populations at overcrowded state prisons and create new sentencing options for non-violent crimes, including drug treatment and expanded parole passed May 4 with almost unanimous support by the Ohio House of Representatives

Under the bill, the racist disparity between crack and cocaine sentences would be wiped out. New prisoners would be able to earn sentence reductions through participation in education and treatment programs. The bill is now awaiting a vote by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gov. John Kasich deserves credit for supporting this fix, as do lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Smart criminal justice reforms are no longer political kryptonite. States like Ohio, which are facing budget pinches, are finally realizing that the “tough on crime” approach is expensive and only perpetuates cycles of poverty and crime.

Other states have shown huge reductions in recidivism (not to mention cost savings) by diverting people convicted of non-violent crimes (like drug offenses) to treatment and community parole instead of long stays in a lockup. Kentucky and Texas are examples of unlikely places where these reforms have taken root.

Unfortunately, another proposal gaining traction in Ohio calls for a vast expansion of prison privatization, which could do far more harm than good. Politicians still sell the idea of private prisons as a frugal fix with little downside, and Kasich is going for a big sale in Ohio, with six state prisons up for sale to the highest bidder.

The governor and his allies argue that private prisons could save taxpayers as much as 20 percent over state facilities, but fuzzy math and experiences in other states call those lofty goals into question.

Frugality aside, it's not a good idea to place security and rehabilitation in the hands of profit-driven shareholders.

CCA and its peers do offer some education and treatment, and the state can mandate some of these services. But these companies are notorious for offering the bare minimum in order to maximize profits. Corrections officers and police unions (out to protect their jobs, of course) have protested Kasich's plan, saying it will cost the state jobs and raise security concerns.

Kasich's interest in private prisons shouldn't be shocking.

The Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's biggest private prison operator, was a big donor to the Republican Governors' Association in 2010 races (when Kasich was elected). Once he took office, Kasich named Gary Mohr, a former managing director at CCA as the state's corrections director. The revolving door turns the other way too, and in January CCA hired Kasich's former congressional chief of staff as a lobbyist

Kasich should quit his corporate-friendly crusade for private prisons and focus on the positive court and prison reforms moving through the legislature. “Smart on crime” policies are taking root across the country, and the bill passed by Ohio's House is a very encouraging start in the Buckeye state.

If Ohio lawmakers can keep their priorities straight, the state could be in for a reduction in both spending and crime.

Matt Kelley is the online communications manager at the Innocence Project and has written on criminal justice reform at change.org and other sites. He welcomes comments from readers.

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