News: What Jail Is Like

New report suggests reform in Hamilton County justice system

Joe Lamb

Hamilton County Commissioners Pat DeWine (left) and Todd Portune debated last fall about Issue 27, the jail tax referendum that failed. Overcrowding remains in the county jails, according to a new report.

An updated report by criminal justice experts about who's held behind bars on a typical day in Hamilton County has both sides claiming vindication in the debate over whether a new jail should be built.

The latest findings by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice show that there's been both an increase in the number of people booked into jail who are considered low-risk offenders and a jump in the number who are admitted for sex, weapons and drug-related offenses. But the number of people admitted for committing personal offenses dropped between 2002 and 2006, as did the time spent in jail for people convicted of driving under the influence charges and motor vehicle-related offenses.

Also, although roughly half of the people jailed had a previous felony conviction, only a quarter were convicted for a violent crime.

On one hand, the report's findings bolster the claims of people who opposed Issue 27, the proposed county sales tax hike on last fall's ballot. Vera's report clearly states that Hamilton County could improve how it processes people into jail by more quickly moving some people through the system, diverting non-violent offenders into other programs and freeing up jail space for more serious offenders.

"This is exactly what they should have done before they put an expensive jail plan on the ballot," says Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine, a Republican who opposed the tax hike. "We need to do the changes to make the system as efficient as possible before we go looking for new money."

On the other hand, supporters of Issue 27 cite the report's findings that indicate demand for jail space has increased in recent years. Overall, more people are being processed and, as a result, the average length of stay for most crimes has decreased as early releases are used.

"Issue 27 was based on a 30-year projection of our need for space, and we used the conservative estimate in the belief that we would reduce the amount of people who return to jail over and over again," says Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, a Democrat who supported the tax hike. "We had to do process reforms just to slow down the growth rate. It doesn't mean we don't need new jail beds, it's just about how many. The need is still going up."

Moving beyond Issue 27
If approved, Issue 27 would have raised $736 million over a 15-year period to build a $198-million, 1,800-bed adult jail in Camp Washington and fund substance abuse treatment, counseling and probation programs for offenders to reduce recidivism.

The ballot issue was rejected 56-44 percent. It was the second time in a year that a tax increase to build a jail was defeated, and Hamilton County commissioners now are looking at other options to deal with the jail overcrowding issue.

Commissioners, who oversee operation and funding of the county jail, received the latest Vera report in mid-March. It provided updated information and compared statistics on people admitted to the jail from a "snapshot" period in 2002 to a similar period in 2006.

"This really isn't about Issue 27 anymore," Pepper says. "It's about moving forward and what do we do next."

The report found that although half of the inmates (50.4 percent) had one or more previous felony convictions, a much smaller proportion (25.1 percent) had a criminal record involving violent offenses. And while drug-related offenders had more previous convictions than those who committed other types of crimes, they also tended to be less violent as a whole.

Property crime-related offenders had the highest proportion of previous violent crime convictions.

The Vera report suggests that county officials should consider alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders to reduce overcrowding.

"This report does not intend to set forth an array of simple solutions to jail overcrowding but rather to identify offender populations that are contributing significantly to the jail population," the report states. "The incarceration of weapons, sex, and person (crime) offenders is warranted. On the other hand, the incarceration of other offender populations such as property, public order and drug offenders should be examined in more detail to determine if it is directly related to public safety or if it is the result of limited or effective alternatives that can still hold the offender accountable while being more cost-effective for the county."

The report also examined the types of crimes associated with an admission and found that most (21.9 percent) stem from property crimes, followed closely by drug offenses (18.9 percent). Theft was the most prevalent charge (8.7 percent), followed by drug possession and domestic violence.

The majority of people admitted into county jail (72 percent) were there for a misdemeanor; only 25 percent were admitted for a felony, and 3 percent were admitted for traffic offenses.

Pepper, however, cautions the statistics can be misleading if not fully understood.

The report examines admissions, which include all people booked into the jail for a crime but who don't necessarily stay there for any length of time. Future reports will be more specific.

"These are not people sitting in jail, these are people admitted to jail," Pepper says. "Some are processed and released (to await trial). It's a jail, not a prison. We take people in for a lot of things, like forging a check. From now on, on a regular basis, we will do a snapshot of who's sitting in jail. That will give us a better idea of the situation we're dealing with."

Reform has 'potential'
Still, the latest analysis shows that more offenders are being booked into jail with fewer offenders being released within 24 hours. People released by posting bonds have decreased from 2002 to 2006, and more releases are attributed to administrative discharges such as "process only."

Vera's report suggests that part of the jail overcrowding problem would be relieved if Hamilton County's criminal justice system were more efficient.

"The changes in offender population combined with changes in processes may be an indication that the county criminal justice system may not be operating as effectively as possible," the report states. "Incarceration is necessary and appropriate for certain offenders, but it is also the most expensive method of punishment that often will only ensure public safety for the period the offender is detained if no program or services are provided to the offender while incarcerated.

"There has also been research indicating that incarcerating non-violent low risk offenders can actually be detrimental to the success of the individual. Given the offender populations identified in this study, there appears to be an opportunity for the county to target specific offender populations and develop a continuum of community sanctions — not just a single program — to address the needs of the offenders while holding the offender accountable for the criminal behavior."

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune seemed to concede as much when discussing the report at the commission's March 19 meeting.

"It does point out, I think, that there is the potential for some process reform to take place that is going to free up an appreciable amount of bed days at the jail to help address the overcrowding issue," Portune said at the session.

Most people admitted into a county-operated jail are charged with violating state laws, but some are booked for violating laws passed by individual cities. The most frequent intake offense in the city of Cincinnati was for possession of marijuana, which accounts for about 4 percent of total admissions in Hamilton County.

In recent years, Cincinnati toughened its marijuana penalties, which has had an impact on who's admitted to jail.

Under Ohio law, anyone caught with less than 100 grams of marijuana is charged with a minor misdemeanor, which entails a $100 ticket. City Councilman Cecil Thomas successfully pushed to change Cincinnati's laws so possession of less than 200 grams is a first-degree misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Although jail time often is unlikely, anyone charged with the offense must be processed at the county jail.

Thomas, a retired police officer, says the change was done to give police more opportunity to search suspicious people and would help take illegal guns off the streets.

Vera's report doesn't substantiate that claim, although it found that the number of people charged with the offense nearly doubled after the city's law was enacted. In 2002, 2.3 percent of total admissions were charged with marijuana possession, compared to 4.4 percent in 2006. Of these cases, 52.9 percent had no second charge.

In broad terms, Vera's study found that the jail population studied didn't change much between the 2002 and 2006 reports.

In 2002 consultants reviewed 44,459 cases, which involved 29,488 individuals. Of that amount, 18.9 percent of inmates had been booked twice and 11.2 percent had been three or more times.

By comparison, consultants reviewed 48,267 cases in 2006 involving 31,020 individuals. Of that amount, 18.4 percent of inmates had been booked twice and 12.2 percent had been booked three or more times. ©

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