Ohio prison crowding at crisis stage

Print

State legislators have complained about prison crowding – and the mounting cost of incarceration – for decades.

Yet the Ohio General Assembly allowed the state prison budget to grow this year, despite looming multibillion-dollar budget deficits. Ohio's statewide inmate population climbed within 128 inmates of the all-time record of 51,273 this month, prompting state lawmakers and Gov. Ted Strickland to blame one another for inaction.

State Sen. Bill Seitz introduced legislation 15 months ago to change criminal sentencing laws in Ohio, reduce prison crowding and begin saving money that the Green Township Republican says could be directed toward job training, drug treatment and other programs to keep offenders out of prison. Less-serious crimes would no longer mandate prison time, under his bill.

Strickland, a Democrat up for re-election, proposed similar sentencing reforms in his two-year budget last year.

But Seitz's bill remains stalled in the Ohio Senate, leaving the sponsor wondering why Strickland – a former prison psychologist – isn't raising a bigger fuss. Meanwhile, prison union leaders fear crowding will lead to another deadly prison riot like the one that killed nine inmates and a guard at Lucasville prison in April 1993.

“We need to pass it sooner rather than later,” Seitz said. “It's one of those Mexican standoffs. . . When we're facing an $8 billion budget deficit, why are we delaying?”

Strickland, speaking at the Ohio NAACP's legislative lobby day this month, suggested the group urge state lawmakers to enact legislation to overhaul the state's criminal sentencing laws. “We have a prison system that is hugely overcrowded, perhaps even dangerously so,” Strickland said. “And we have now the opportunity, because I think the time is right and I think there is growing support for really addressing some of the problems that we have within our sentencing laws today. And so that's one of the things that I hope you will talk about and focus on.”

According to research and interviews funded in part by a John Jay College fellowship, The Enquirer found:

m.At least 26 states have reversed the trend of recent decades and cut funding for corrections. Ohio lags behind half the nation in cutting its prison expenditures, according to a 2009 study by Vera's Center on Sentencing and Corrections, part of the non-partisan, nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. Ohio's prison budget continues to grow, up slightly this fiscal year over last.

m.Other states have successfully reduced prison crowding by emphasizing treatment programs and improving parole and probation programs, according to studies by the Council of State Governments. (CSG).

With most Ohio legislators seeking re-election this fall, it's easier to keep a near-record number of state prisoners locked away than pass legislation that appears soft on crime.

But that choice comes at another price, according to the CSG's Justice Center, which found prison spending typically outpaces spending by most other state agencies – totaling $53 billion nationwide last year, and averaging $1.6 billion a year in Ohio. That's up from $480 million in 1991 and $1.4 billion in 2001. About one of every four state employees works for the Ohio Department of Correction and Rehabilitation Services, the fourth-costliest state agency. after the Department of Job and Family Services. Department of Education and Board o Regents.

DRC Director Ernie L. Moore called it more important than ever to examine what is pushing the prison population upward “and make tough decisions to divert appropriate low-level offenders to safe and effective community alternatives.”

Strickland, Moore and legislative leaders are awaiting completion of a CSG Justice Center study, which could take up to three years, before deciding on any drastic action, such as a mass release of inmates. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative study, which could cost up to $1 million, was prompted by a 2008 request from Ohio's elected state leaders. Most of the cost is paid for by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance.

CSG, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, has worked with more than 10 states, including Texas and Kansas. In many cases, the studies – which focus on “justice reinvestment,'' gave state lawmakers ideas on how to decrease the prison population and cut the corrections' budget. Justice reinvestment is defined as “a data-driven approach to reduce corrections spending and investing the savings into programs and strategies that decease crime and strengthen neighborhoods,'' according to Michael Thompson, director of the council's Justice Center.

“We certainly don't want to get in the way of what the legislature wants to do,'' Thompson said.

To guide the Justice Center's analyses of Ohio's criminal justice system and development of policy options, the state set up a justice reinvestment work group, co-chaired by Seitz and state Rep. Mike Moran, a Democrat from Hudson. Members represent both parties and all three branches of state government, including the two chambers of the General Assembly. The work group will review data analyses from the Justice Center and identify policy options to address the projected growth in Ohio's prison population, identify ways to save money, reinvest in strategies to prevent repeat offenses and increase public safety.

Texas' state legislature reinvested its savings into treating drug abuse, mental illness and other “diversion” programs that reduce prison crowding.

In Kansas, the Justice Center's study of prison data found 65 percent of that state's prison admissions were due to parole and probation violations. So Kansas officials created financial incentivesfor county parole officers to meet certain goals, new policies and training to improve the parole system while expanding treatment programs. The changes allowed Kansas to scrub planned prison construction, and close some smaller prison facilities. That's a good concrete sentence

In Ohio, the Justice Center plans a July meeting to share an interim report on its prison analysis with state legislators including Seitz and state Rep. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Township. The Cincinnati-area legislators are considering a new bill that would identify ways to keep offenders from returning to prison.

The interim report in July will include an analysis of cost and prison population pressures the state is facing.

“This project is an important step to develop a comprehensive policy framework that strategically invests Ohio's corrections dollars,'' Moore said Friday.

Because of the complexities of the study and three phases of the project, the total cost will range between $ 500,000 and $1 million, according to CSG's Mark Pelka. The vast majority of the cost is covered by private foundations and federal agencies, namely the Pew Center on the States and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

CSG, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, has worked with more than 10 states, including Texas and Kansas. In many cases, the studies – which focus on “justice reinvestment,'' gave state lawmakers ideas on how to decrease the prison population and cut the corrections' budget. Justice reinvestment is defined as “a data-driven approach to reduce corrections spending and investing the savings into programs and strategies that decease crime and strengthen neighborhoods,'' according to Michael Thompson, director of the council's Justice Center.

“We certainly don't want to get in the way of what the legislature wants to do,'' Thompson said.

To guide the Justice Center's analyses of Ohio's criminal justice system and development of policy options, the state set up a justice reinvestment work group, co-chaired by Seitz and state Rep. Mike Moran, a Democrat from Hudson. Members represent both parties and all three branches of state government, including the two chambers of the General Assembly. The work group will review data analyses from the Justice Center and identify policy options to address the projected growth in Ohio's prison population, identify ways to save money, reinvest in strategies to prevent repeat offenses and increase public safety.

Texas' state legislature reinvested its savings into treating drug abuse, mental illness and other “diversion” programs that reduce prison crowding.

In Kansas, the Justice Center's study of prison data found 65 percent of that state's prison admissions were due to parole and probation violations. So Kansas officials created financial incentives for county parole officers to meet certain goals, new policies and training to improve the parole system while expanding treatment programs. The changes allowed Kansas to scrub planned prison construction, and close some smaller prison facilities. That's a good concrete sentence

In Ohio, the Justice Center plans a July meeting to share an interim report on its prison analysis with state legislators including Seitz and state Rep. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Township. The Cincinnati-area legislators are considering a new bill that would identify ways to keep offenders from returning to prison.

The interim report in July will include an analysis of cost and prison population pressures the state is facing.

“This project is an important step to develop a comprehensive policy framework that strategically invests Ohio's corrections dollars,'' Moore said Friday.

The report will include findings on Ohio's behavioral health system (mental health, addiction services and treatment). It includes input from judges, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, victim advocates, probation officials, community corrections, and behavioral health service and treatment providers.

In 2009, of the more than 9,100 offenders enrolled in Ohio's Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime, also known as TASC, just 6 percent of adults were arrested on a new charge and 2 percent were jailed. About 82 percent of their drug tests were negative.

Letting prisoners out en masse doesn't reduce crime or crowding, according to several recent studies, including by the Pew Center on the States.

In fact, shaving three months off every criminal's sentence has been found to reduce repeat offenses and prison crowding over time.

Strickland once counseled inmates at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, site of the deadly 11-day riot that began on Easter 1993. The deaths were largely blamed on prison crowding and a shortage of guards. Tensions among prison staff are high again as budget cuts loom. Rather than release prisoners from Lucasville, state officials instead decided to stop manning several prison guard towers, prompting the correction officers union to picket over new safety concerns.

Prison growth

Ohio’s prison inmate population has grown by more than 500 percent since 1972 and is projected to soar to 53,992 next July if proposed sentencing changes and alternatives to punishment aren’t passed by the General Assembly.

1972: 8,846

1975: 8,978

1979: 12,768

1985: 17,382

1989: 24,373

1995: 39,065

1999: 45,285

2005: 41,039

2009: 50,985 (as of April 6)

2010: 51,145 (as of April 5)

*All-time Ohio record: 51,273 on Nov. 10, 2008

Source: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

What worked?

The Council on State Governments’ Justice Center, which is studying Ohio’s prison system for ways to reduce its prison population and repeat offenders and save money, cited these success stories from past studies:

Kansas state legislators enacted a 60-day credit for inmates who completed certain programs and a grant program for local community corrections agencies to reduce repeat offenses. The state expects to save $80 million over five years. About one-tenth of that money was reinvested into treatment programs, improved local supervision and targeting high-crime neighborhoods. The changes allowed Kansas to scrub planned prison construction, and close some smaller prison facilities.

Texas state lawmakers have saved $443 million by focusing on improving supervision after prison release, and reinvested $241million in drug abuse, mental health and other diversion programs. The number of people returning to prison from parole and probation has decreased since 2007. The state’s prison population had been projected to increase by 14,000 in five years, but flattened out instead.

Senate Bill 22

State Sen. Bill Seitz’ legislation, Senate Bill 22, has sentencing proposals similar to those proposed last year by Gov. Ted Strickland and Terry Collins, his former prison director. Strickland’s two-year budget, which was passed last July, included $3.65 billion through June 2012 to operate Ohio’s 32 prisons, which are crowded at 130 percent of their designed cell space.

Strickland recommended sentencing people to alternative programs for failing to pay child support, freeing 527 prison beds annually; increasing from one to seven days per month the possible “earned credit” time for eligible inmates, freeing 2,644 prison beds; redefining supervision for parole violators, freeing 591 prison beds; and raising the felony theft thresholds from $500 to $750, freeing 300 prison beds. Those and other reforms could eventually save $29 million and reduce the prison population by 6,736 annually, according to budget estimates.

Seitz, a Republican from Green Township, proposed reducing “earned credit” to five days per month instead of seven. Credits would be earned by completing education courses, job training, drug treatment and other prison programs. Violent offenders and sex offenders would not be eligible for good-time credits under Senate Bill 22. Seitz’ sentencing proposals re projected to free-up 3,498 prison beds, saving the state $15 million-a-year.

Flashback

In May 2001, here’s what two popular Cincinnati-area lawmakers told the Enquirer about prison crowding:

Legislators such as state Rep. Gary Cates, a Republican from West Chester who is now a state Senator, suggested the state use more halfway houses and other alternative programs for non-violent criminals to slow the exploding prison budget; there were 45,000 inmates at that time.

“When you look at the cost of incarcerating people you realize how much more that department is gobbling out of the budget,” Cates said. “We have to do a better job of rehabilitating people. It’s cheaper.”

Former Senate President Richard Finan, a Republican from Evendale, had favored spending more money on intensive drug and alcohol treatment in Ohio prisons – a move he believes would save money in the long run. Just 15 of Ohio’s 34 prisons provide residential drug and alcohol programs.

“Here we’ve got a captive audience and doggone it, we ought to be trying to change them,” Finan, now a Statehouse lobbyist, said at that time.

Finan also proposed: college courses via the Internet for inmates; putting more prisoners to work refurbishing tires for school buses and performing similar factory jobs. Finan said such programs would save money because inmates who learn job skills are less likely to return to prison. About 32 percent of inmates released in Ohio end up back behind bars.

“Right now they come out of prison with no ability to get a job, so where can they make money? They go back to the streets,” Finan said nine years ago. “We’ve go to do something. The mentality in the prison system is they are not as much into correction as they are incarceration.”

Contact Reporter Jon Craig jcraig@enquirer.com

This piece, which appeared in Cincinnati Enquirer, is one of a series of original criminal justice journalism projects around the country produced by 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Fellows. They were coordinated with editorial input by Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice. We thank the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation for their generous support of this project.

Comments are closed.