Ohio’s adult prison population has fallen below 50,000 for the first time in four years, giving hope to officials trying to reduce the number of inmates behind bars.
The official tally, taken each Tuesday, was 49,596 inmates this week, 45,553 of whom are men.
That’s a drop of 179 from the same time last month and 996 fewer that the same time a year ago.
Like other states, Ohio is eager to reduce the number of inmates to save money and to prevent crime by keeping low-level offenders closer to home, where they can receive support from family and social services.
Money saved through the reduction of inmates can be better spent on programs helping needy Ohioans at an early age, said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
“When we can invest more and more resources and support in that direction, we’re going to heal the state and we’re going to heal this country sooner than we are sending people to prison,” said Mohr, who frequently notes that when he started with the agency 43 years ago, Ohio locked up about 8,300 inmates.
The record-high inmate total in Ohio was 51,273 in November 2008. The population this week is the lowest since January 2013, when the figure was 49,583.
Prison populations are dropping across the country as officials recognize the cost of incarceration and the diminishing return on crime rates after big buildups following the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
Thirty-five states have seen their prison population decrease in recent years, led by California, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. California currently houses about 115,000 inmates, down from about 121,000 five years ago, thanks to court-ordered and voter-approved efforts to reduce the population.
Texas has about 146,000 inmates, down from about 157,000 in 2011. In Maryland, the prison agency is downsizing the 75-year-old Maryland Correctional Institution to increase safety and efficiency, a move that reflects an 11 percent decline in the state’s inmate population since 2012.
In Ohio, Mohr attributes the state’s drop to cumulative efforts in recent years to keep low-level offenders out of prison altogether.
One of those programs, dubbed Treatment Transfer, sends non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems to local residential treatment programs. That accounts for about a third of the recent drop.
Another program provides money to counties that house people convicted of minor crimes, such as drug possession or theft. Typically, they would be placed in local jails, halfway-house type programs or on supervised probation.
Forty-eight counties participate in that program now, including five of Ohio’s largest counties, with the remaining five required to join next year. The current state budget allotted an additional $58 million to counties to help cover the cost.
The program isn’t universally popular, with counties like Cuyahoga and Stark saying the money isn’t enough.
Some changes might be needed, though judges generally back the concept, said Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference.
“The judges don’t disagree that sending people into an environment with criminals who have had a lifetime of bad behavior is a going to be a good thing for folks whose principal offenses are they’ve gotten hooked on drugs and they may have done some low-level criminal activity to feed their habit,” said Pfeifer, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice.