Lisa Cornwell

CINCINNATI: A new pilot program launched by the state to help reduce Ohio’s prison population will allow low-level felony offenders to remain in their communities under supervision without going to prison.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced Wednesday that Clinton County in southwestern Ohio is the program’s first recipient of a $200,000 grant under the voluntary project. The money from the department’s budget will pay for supervision services, incarceration in local detention centers, electronic monitoring, substance use monitoring and treatment and other services for low-level felony offenders kept at the local level.

“Our prison system is too big, often because we have a lot of truly nonviolent folks coming to prison,” department Director Gary Mohr said.

Ohio currently has just under 51,000 inmates, or just below the record of 51,273 in 2008. Mohr said he is confident the program can help reduce those numbers and ensure that low-level offenders receive essential treatment at the community level. The program is aimed at people convicted of crimes such as drug possession or theft, and those convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses aren’t eligible.

In 2015, more than 20 percent of all those entering the state’s prisons — over 4,300 individuals — were sent there with one year or less to serve, and many of them had been sentenced for nonviolent offenses at the lowest felony level.

“For those short-time, nonviolent offenders, who are often drug-addicted, local communities can do a better job because they are able to supervise them directly,” Mohr said.

Clinton County Common Pleas Judge Tim Rudduck agrees that people addicted to drugs have a health issue that needs to be resolved.

“It’s not simply a matter of putting someone in prison and telling that person to stop using drugs,” Rudduck said. “It takes time, patience and understanding of what that person is going through.”

Nothing in the grant agreement prevents a judge from sending anyone to prison, and Rudduck says he knows there will be some offenders he can’t help. While some grant money would be withheld when an offender qualifying for the new program does go to prison, Rudduck sees that as an economic incentive for judges and communities to deal with the problem locally.

But the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said that group doesn’t like the idea of inducements not to send offenders to prison.

“If they want to pass out money without strings, we wouldn’t object to that,” John Murphy said.

He said judges should make decisions based on what an offender did, “not because they are afraid that budget or grant money will be docked.”

But Mohr stresses that the voluntary program gives judges greater ability to look at offenders and their circumstances and opportunities when making sentencing decisions.