Ohio prison reductions from reforms slow, steady
by Jessie Balmert
NEWARK — A year after legislation took effect to curb the growing prison population, the sweeping sentencing reform was neither the boon its proponents anticipated nor the bust some judges and jail administrators feared.
House Bill 86, which took effect on Sept. 30, 2011, promised to reduce the prison population by 3,500 and save taxpayers up to $46.2 million by fiscal year 2015. More than a year into its reforms, prison officials are underwhelmed somewhat by reductions in population, said Linda Janes, chief of staff with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
“We certainly have seen some impact thus far, but not quite what we anticipated,” Janes said.
The legislation had a number of cost-cutting provisions, including raising dollar-amount thresholds for theft offenses; encouraging probation or local incarceration for first-time offenders and those who don't pay child support; and capping some third-degree felonies at three years instead of five. It costs about $68.14 to house an inmate in prison for a day, Janes said.
Ohio judges have reduced the average number of people sent to prison by more than 100 offenders each month compared to the year before House Bill 86 took effect, according to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data.
In Ross County, judges sent an average of 16 offenders to prison each month since House Bill 86 took effect, an increase of about one person from the previous year's monthly average.
The state closed five camps and two dormitories because of reductions in prison population. The facilities cost between $1.5 million and $2 million a piece to operate, Janes said. However, it's unclear how much reforms have saved taxpayers because money was reinvested into grants to help county probation departments offset costs of additional work locally, Janes said.
A slow start
Janes blames the sluggish start, in part, on a provision of the bill that has yet to take effect.
By January, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will be able to recommend early release for certain prisoners who serve 80 percent of their sentence and meet standards, such as good behavior and completing classes, she said.
“We hope that judges will take our recommendations very seriously,” Janes said.
Richland County Common Pleas Court Judge James Henson said the recommendations are another way for state officials to control how county courts operate.
“I think they are saying: we now have authority to do what we wanted to do all the time,” Henson said.
However, Sandusky County Common Pleas Judge John Dewey said he supports the recommendations, which should save taxpayer money.
“They're not going to let the idiot out who has been violating prison rules and regulations,” Dewey said.
Another provision, which allows judges to to have offenders automatically released after serving 80 percent of their prison term and completing certain programs, has not been implemented across the state, Janes said. In a year, 146 offenders were sent to the risk-reduction track, she added.
“We're hoping we'll see more,” Janes said.
Nearly two-thirds of Ohio's counties sent fewer people to prison each month than the year before. Sixty-six counties reduced the number of people sent to prison for the lowest-level felonies, the ones targeted by House Bill 86, according to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data.
Counties with larger populations, such as Cuyahoga, Butler and Montgomery counties, had the largest monthly reductions in prison admissions.
Judges in Ohio's less populous counties said the reforms did not dramatically change how they sentenced, and that was reflected in minor shifts in prison admissions.
In Richland County, judges sent an average of two more offenders to prison each month since the reforms took effect. In August, judges sentenced 45 offenders to prison, the highest monthly total in four years, according to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data.
Henson said he's doling out lesser sentences when required even though some offenders won't perform requirements of probation, like counseling and drug testing.
“Unfortunately, a lot guys are saying they aren't doing probation,” Henson said.
Marion County also sent more people to prison compared to the previous year, according to Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction figures.
Marion County Common Pleas Court Judge William Finnegan said budget cuts to the local jail have made it difficult to divert offenders from prison.
“That's one of the community sanctions we're supposed to have available,” Finnegan said.
Marion County judges have used the community-based correctional facility in Marysville to divert offenders from prison, Finnegan said. Statewide, admissions to these facilities, which provide programming to reduce criminal behavior in a minimum security setting, have increased slightly since reforms took effect.
Those facilities never will see a drastic increase because of the limited number of beds available, Janes said.
Offenders not sent to prison often end up in local jails. That hasn't posed a problem for some jails, like the one in Muskingum County, Common Pleas Court Judge Kelly Cottrill said.
Average monthly inmate population was 303 the year before House Bill 86 took effect and 304 since October 2011, according to Muskingum County jail statistics.
However, Ottawa County's jail admissions tell a different story. Average monthly admissions from Ottawa County increased by 20 offenders between its two facilities since House Bill 86 took effect compared to the previous year, according to jail statistics.
“I think down the road in future years, it could be a major concern,” Ottawa County Sheriff's Office Lt. Donald Lochotzki said.
The next three years
To meet projections, judges will have to send fewer people to prison or prisons will have to release offenders sooner.
The largest roadblock to that goal is offenders who do not have the discipline or intelligence to follow the rules, said Judge Dewey, of Sandusky County.
The lesser sentences are not effective in deterring those offenders, Finnegan said.
“That takes away a fear of using low-level drugs in the first place,” he said.
As long as the reforms continue to reduce prison admissions, Dewey said he doesn't anticipate any changes in the reforms.
“It's going to save money and as we have just recently learned with the political races, money talks,” Dewey said.