With Ohio lawmakers again working on criminal justice reform, two earlier attempts have failed to live up to expectations, a new study finds.
And despite widespread calls to reduce prison populations, a separate study last month found that about 12 percent of the bills filed in the previous two-year session of the legislature would have put more people in behind bars.
This week’s report, sponsored by a coalition of left- and right-leaning groups, said a series of laws passed since 2011 “took important steps towards stabilizing, at the time, Ohio’s rapidly growing prison population and averting the need for thousands of new prison beds.” However, they “did not reduce the prison population as originally projected.”
The laws downgraded sentences for some low-level offenses, reclassified some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, allowed for earlier release of certain offenders, made it harder to send probation violators to prison, and created financial incentives for counties to voluntarily rehabilitate some low-level offenders without sending them to prison.
But despite the changes, the prison population was just over 49,000 as of last week’s count. That’s a population at least 1,000 greater than what the bill originally projected, said the new report, which was co-authored by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, Americans for Prosperity and the Buckeye Institute. Ohio’s prison population was at its highest in Nov. 2008, when it hit 51,273.
“For the past decade, Ohio lawmakers have been taking important steps,” said Shakyra Diaz of the alliance. However, “not as many people convicted of low-level felonies have been served by the local authorities as intended by the legislature.”
For example, she said local judges have imprisoned people who have committed technical probation violations in higher numbers and for longer terms than intended by the legislature. Probation violations make up almost a quarter of all offenders being admitted to Ohio prisons, Diaz said.
“Locally, efforts to set a cap on probation violation terms at 180 days, versus a year and-a-half, were generally not being complied with,” said a report by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction that was quoted by the consortium including Diaz’s group.
Also, the consortium’s report said, “Changes designed to encourage judges toward using probation or other community control sentences for low-level felonies showed unpredictable and, at best, mixed results.”
Former Gov. John Kasich used to complaint about local judges, fearful of being labeled light on crime when it came time for re-election, continuing to had out harsh sentences despite the changes in state.
Perhaps also keeping prison populations high is the fact that lawmakers continue to file bills that would create new crimes or enhance penalties for existing ones, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report last month.
“The sweeping expansion of criminal law into peoples’ lives should concern elected officials in both parties,” a statement accompanying the report said. “Our jails and prisons are overflowing, wavering near 130 percent of capacity.”
However, the debate over last year’s failed Issue 1shows how complicated reducing prison populations can be. One opponent pointed out that many new crimes are put on the books as the public becomes newly aware of social ills.
For example, Senate Bill 55, which is before the legislature, is intended to crack down on drug dealers who prey on people coming and going from recovery centers. The ACLU’s Gary Daniels on Wednesday tweeted that without at least some modifications, the bill “undermines reform efforts.”
At the same time, the legislature is considering Senate Bill 3, a priority bill that seeks ease punishments on drug users while going after true traffickers. It’s hoped that if it becomes law, it will reduce prison populations enough to save taxpayers $50 million a year.