ACLU to Ohio lawmakers: hold off on crime bills, please

While experts conduct a top-to-bottom review of Ohio’s criminal laws, legislators continue to push tough-on-crime bills that send more people to prisons and jails, the ACLU of Ohio said Thursday in a new report.

Nearly one in 10 bills introduced in the General Assembly are designed to create new crimes, enhance penalties or mandate prison time, according to the “Ohio’s Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline 2017” report.

“This should be a wake-up call for legislators,” said Gary Daniels, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “We can’t expect criminal justice reform to succeed if legislators are constantly funneling more people into an already overflowing statehouse-to-prison pipeline.”

For nearly two years, a committee of experts — judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison officials — has been combing through the Ohio criminal code, looking for areas in need to be changed, thrown out or beefed up.

Kari Bloom of the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, who serves on the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, urged lawmakers to hold off on more crime bills until the full review is completed this spring.

Daniels said not only should lawmakers hold off until that review is done, but they should stop advancing bills that add to the Ohio prison population. “We are in crisis mode here. We have been for a number of years.”

Ohio prisons, which were built to house roughly 38,000 inmates, now incarcerate 50,500 at a cost of $1.67 billion a year.

Each time a harsher prison sentence is added to the books, more people are eligible for time behind bars. Daniels said the layers of new laws and penalties have a compounding impact on the prison population.

The ACLU reported that legislators have a “every problem is a crime” mentality that led to a new law includes jail time for fixing an agricultural weighing machine without first registering with the state.

Criminal defense attorney Barry Wolford criticized lawmakers who use sympathetic crime victims to justify new mandates, new crimes and harsher penalties. Often the tough-on-crime bills are named after victims. “Soon we’ll have a full sorority of victims enshrined in the Ohio criminal code,” he said at the ACLU press conference.

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