By Andrew Welsh-Higgins
A two-year-old plan to reduce Ohio’s prison inmate population is not having the hoped-for impact, with the number of prisoners behind bars expected to spike beyond estimates, the director of the state prison system said Thursday.
The state’s already high population of 50,000 could soar to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said in a presentation to a legislative prison inspection committee.
The system is currently at 131 percent of inmate capacity and could hit 139 percent by 2019, Mohr warned. California’s system was declared unconstitutional at 140 percent, he said.
Mohr also singled out 2017 as a significant year: the earliest that Ohio could build a new prison to deal with the increase, if that were the approach taken. Mohr said in a follow-up interview that he would consider it a failure if that happened.
“If we don’t do anything, it projects a level of crowding that we cannot handle,” Mohr said. “Those are the challenges.”
To fix the problem, Mohr proposes working with judges to find ways to reduce prison commitments and with lawmakers to re-examine penalties for less serious crimes.
He also wants a system modeled on one used for juvenile offenders to place more adult inmates in non-prison facilities closer to home.
Inmates entering the prison system today have committed more serious crimes, resulting in longer sentences, according to a report that was to be released Thursday by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.
The number of women behind bars also is soaring and far outpacing the increase in the male population, the CIIC report added.
Women accounted for 6 percent of the total prison population 10 years ago but now account for 8 percent, with 4,001 females behind bars in Ohio, according to the CIIC.
The population numbers are in contrast to rosy projections from just two years ago as lawmakers passed a bill meant to reduce the inmate population.
Under that 2011 law, the number of inmates was supposed to drop to around 47,000 by 2015 and dip below 47,000 two years after that.
But that law didn’t anticipate a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors across the state, Mohr said.
He called some of the changes in the 2011 law, such as earned credit for good behavior, “tinkering.” Meanwhile, lower level offenders still make up more than half the inmates entering the system, contrary to the state’s goal of finding them alternatives to prison.