As the number of inmates in Ohio prisons grew and a weak economy cut into state revenues, there was reason to believe two years ago that changes in sentencing laws put into effect would help slow growth in the prison population. In turn, they would prevent the degree of crowding that presents serious security and legal risks.
The optimism has faded with projections released in a report last week by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. The report is a further reminder: At best, the reforms are a first step in what must be a sustained effort by the legislature, plus the prison and criminal justice systems, to lower the inmate population to those who truly ought to be kept away from the general public.
With roughly 50,000 inmates, Ohio’s prisons are at 131 percent capacity and adding inmates at a rate that would put the facilities at 139 percent capacity by 2019. Gary Mohr, the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, is rightly concerned that unless more aggressive steps are taken, the system cannot handle the level of crowding. California’s system, he points out, was ruled unconstitutional at 140 percent capacity.
Of the people who end up in Ohio prisons each year, about 23 percent are there for probation violations. More than 45 percent are convicted of drug and property offenses, which can be dealt with at less expense in community-based facilities. Among other things, the 2011 reforms allow those convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes to be diverted to community-based programs. Those in prison can earn credits toward early release.
Unfortunately, these well-meaning changes have not made enough of a dent in the inmate population for various reasons. Law enforcement officers project a slight spike in violent crime in Ohio after years of decline. The state is struggling with an epidemic of opiate addiction. Legislators too often bump up penalties, turning misdemeanor crimes into felonies requiring prison sentences. Though the number of offenders sentenced to prison every year has dropped to about 20,000, more inmates are serving longer terms.
Mohr calls reasonably for a thorough revision of the state criminal code. Meanwhile, he does well to examine budgeting policies that have worked to cut the population in Ohio’s youth prisons.