Prisons in Ohio have been overcrowded for decades, but a few reforms to the system currently working their way up through the state legislature could help prevent an estimated 3,400 people from ending up in those jails.
As of March 2017, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction reported that there are approximately 50,160 inmates in the state prisons designed to hold 38,579 inmates. Since 2005, the prison population in the state has increased by approximately 15 percent, and the state expects to spend about $3.9 billion in the next two years on corrections alone.
These proposed changes range from moving low-level, non-violent to community-based alternatives like drug treatment programs to completely removing the mandatory prison sentences currently tied to minor parole violations. These alternatives focus on rehabilitation, an angle favored by both liberal and conservative groups that seek to move past a belief that we need to be “tough on crime”.
There are two separate bills currently under review by Ohio lawmakers that supporters say will help lower the overall prison population and decrease recidivism rates by diverting low-level offenders from prison. Gary Mohr, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, stated that approximately 3,400 people could be diverted from state prisons annually and that the state could save $20 million or more on costs every year.
The proposed plan will expand a pilot program that started in November of 2016 and ran in eight smaller counties showed success, with the counties participating in the program agreed to keep fifth-degree felons without sex or violent crime charges serving time for a year or less in local programs, and also implemented changes including adding a detox center to a vacant wing in a county jail and hiring a doctor to assist courts in selecting drug treatment options. These changes would become mandatory throughout Ohio in 2018.
"Most importantly, these individuals will be diverted from the state prison system and will avoid facing a lifetime of collateral consequences," Mohr told lawmakers in February.
Senate Bill 66 would add rehabilitation to the list of factors, currently only protecting public safety and punishment, weighted during a sentencing. In addition, it would:
- Expand alcohol and drug treatment eligibility as an alternative to convictions for third-degree felons.
- Give people the chance to apply to have their records sealed if they have any number of fourth and / or fifth-degree felony convictions.
- Remove automatic prison terms when someone commits a technical parole violation, like running late to an official meeting with their parole officer.
The ability to seal records has already proven to help people looking to move on to a better life. Brandon Chrostowski, an ex-offender whose records were sealed, said that it gave him a new chance at life.
"People didn't ask me what I did or where I was from -- it was refreshing," Chrostowski said. "I'm just a person trying to do good, not a criminal trying to get back."
Marc Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a national conservative organization, said that while Ohio could still do more to take the strain off their overcrowded prisons, these proposed changes are a step in the right direction.
"Even if it only affects 4,000 people -- that's not chicken feed," Levin said. "More relevant than the exact numbers is the fact it will mean more people in the workforce, taking care of their families and contributing to society."