Tough on Crime, Tough on Wallets

Costs rise as prison population skyrockets

Many people believe a justice system that’s tough on crime is crucial to citizens’ sense of security, providing them with the comforting notion that criminal offenders will be put under lock and key to keep their neighborhoods well-protected and functioning in an orderly fashion.

A report issued last month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio reveals that the state’s current criminal justice system is equally as tough on wallets.

The ACLU’s report, entitled Reform Cannot Wait: A Comprehensive Examination of the Cost of Incarceration in Ohio from 1991-2010, evaluates two decades of studies that expose ineffective policies, inefficient use of funds and racial unfairness associated with Ohio’s criminal justice system.

Among a gauntlet of alarming statistics, the report shows that Ohio’s prisons have reached 133 percent capacity, housing 50,920 inmates in a system designed to hold a maximum of 38,655.

Also, it reveals that the state’s prison population has quintupled since 1975, bringing a vast number of public policy choices — such as mandatory minimums and other sentencing charges — into question.

On Aug. 17, the report was sent to the Ohio Budget Planning and Management Committee by Christine Link, ACLU of Ohio executive director, and James Hardiman, ACLU of Ohio legal director. Included was a cover letter stating that members of the Ohio General Assembly and other levels of state government have, for the most part, repeatedly refused to adopt proposals for reform in past.

Ideas have included community-based alternatives to prison, moving 10 percent of low-risk prisoners to parole and shifting the purpose of parole supervision to one of support and service. Despite potential for millions of dollars in savings, these proposals have been either rejected or ignored.

As noted in the ACLU’s cover letter, “The result is that our criminal justice system is riddled with inefficient policies that increase cost, reduce safety, and contribute to racial disparities.”

Their report is divided into three sections, the first of which focuses solely on the cost of incarceration. According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the average cost per inmate per day was $66.31 in 2010, and has risen since 2007. With an inmate population in August 2010 of 50,920, this totals up to roughly $3.4 million spent each day.

Statistics also show that Ohio spent nearly $1.76 billion on corrections in 2008 alone with 51,160 sentenced prisoners, marking a 1.5 percent increase from 2007.

It’s also worth mentioning that Ohio spends more than $109,000 annually to incarcerate one juvenile but only spends about $9,000 annually to educate a child.

The report's second section focuses on incarceration and public safety, highlighting the increased safety risks for inmates and corrections officers posed by overcrowded detention facilities.

“We have too many people and too little space,” says State Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township), who supports the ACLU’s call for reform. “As we continue to operate under very strained budgets in the state of Ohio, we have to do something about this problem because we don’t want there to be another Lucasville riot, which happened as a result of prisoner overcrowding.”

The section notes that such “over-criminalization” results in the added consequence of creating a growing class of low-level felony ex-offenders who are closed off from education, employment and housing, all of which are essential to rehabilitation, thus perpetuating crimes committed by previous offenders.

The third section examines incarceration and fairness. According to the report, African Americans account for only 12 percent of Ohio’s total population but about 45 percent of those incarcerated. In addition, statistics show that African Americans in Ohio are arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison almost 10 times as frequently as whites.

For these reasons, Seitz (pictured) is helping to find a solution to the state’s prison problems.

In June 2009, he wrote Senate Bill 22. If passed this fall, it would save an estimated $13.7 million in annual incarceration costs by revising drug penalties and earned credit programs, increasing use of community-based correction and intervention programs and reforming medical release to address the health concerns of inmates, among numerous other reforms.

“If we do not do something about this upward arc in prison admissions and length of stay, we will have to spend billions that we don’t have to build new prisons,” Seitz says. “Given all the problems our economy faces, billions of dollars spent on new prisons is probably not the best way to go if there are other ways to hold prisoners accountable.”

He explains that the bill reflects ideas that Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, put forth in the state’s budget bill in March 2009.

“For the most part, my reforms are targeted at lower level felons,” Seitz says. “Folks that use a gun to commit a crime do not find any material relief under my bill. My bill will help people who are in prison on charges like failure to pay child support, theft, drug possession and drug offenses that do not involve weapons.

“It’s a matter of triaging out those least likely to pose a risk to public safety and freeing up space to hold those most likely to pose a risk to public safety.”

The bill would provide inmates with the opportunity to earn five days per month off of his or her sentence if the person actively participates in job training, education and substance abuse prevention course work that is offered in the prison system. Currently, Ohio’s system offers prisoners only one day per month incentive to participate.

Stephen JohnsonGrove, an attorney with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), supports the concept.

“By incentivizing inmates to participate in evidence-based programming, we’re increasing the chances that their stay in the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections will actually be a time when they are rehabilitated and corrected,” he says.

In addition to reforming incentive-based rehabilitation in Ohio prisons, JohnsonGrove notes the bill would increase the threshold between misdemeanor and felony theft from $500 (a figure set in 1995) to $1,000, due to inflation; reduce the chance that someone who misses a meeting with his parole officer will be charged at the same level as someone who escapes from prison (which is a common current practice); expand treatment opportunities for certain drug offenders and job-preparation opportunities for those found guilty of missing at least six months of child support payments (a felony in Ohio); and, last but not least, equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine possession.

“The current disparity has been unfairly harsh on crack users, who are far more likely to be black, while being more lenient on powder cocaine users, who are far more likely to be white,” JohnsonGrove says.

That supports the ACLU’s findings that, regardless of crime in a particular jurisdiction, police often target the same neighborhoods to make drug arrests, resulting in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

“This new set of careful options created by S.B. 22 empowers Ohio’s judges and the prison system to alleviate its dangerously overcrowded prisons by releasing the lowest risk offenders or preventing their entry in the first place,” JohnsonGrove says. “S.B.22 is all positive, not just for offenders but for our entire community.”

Seitz reports that part of the savings from the bill would be reinvested into things like an expanded network of halfway houses, education and job training programs in prison to help prisoners gain the skills they need in order to become productive citizens.

“Obviously, the bulk of the saved money will be applied towards our looming $8 billion budget deficit that’s staring us in the face,” he concedes.

In addition to the Senate bill, the ACLU of Ohio promotes House Bill 235 in their report, which deals with issues currently present in the state’s juvenile justice system.

The report shows that youth of color accounted for an estimated 21 percent of Ohio’s juvenile population in 2007 yet represented 49 percent of all children adjudicated delinquent for felony offenses and 64 percent of those committed.

If passed, H.B. 235 would eliminate mandatory sentence enhancements and restore discretion to Ohio’s juvenile court judges to treat children on a case-by-case basis. It would also eliminate the mandatory transfer of youth to adult court, called “bind over,” and limit eligibility for bind over to only felony offenses of violence.

JohnsonGrove supports this bill as well.

“Ohio’s total population rose approximately 7 percent from the 1970’s ’til now. The prison population rose 500 percent in that time,” he says. “We absolutely support reining in the harsh sentencing laws that produced those absurdly incongruent numbers while creating a class of people — mostly non-violent ex-offenders — who find it hard to get a job, obtain housing, and generally become the gainfully employed citizens that we are paying the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to produce.”

Both bills are pending in the legislative process.

“We’re hoping for both the House and the Senate to act on S.B. 22 this fall,” Seitz says. “I guess when the election is over some of my cowardly colleagues will summon up the courage to vote for it.”

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