Judge Donald Oda II predicted the state’s new program to reduce state prison populations would fail. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Area counties turn down millions in state prison alternative grants

Montgomery County will take its share of $40 million in state money to divert low-level felons from Ohio prisons to local jails, but many area counties are rejecting the funds.

Clark, Greene, Miami, Preble and Warren counties are among those to decline Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (T-CAP) grants for felons, generally those convicted of non-violent theft and drug crimes.

“Every community has a choice to participate or not. We found it beneficial for our community,” said Jim Dare, court administrator in Montgomery County.

MORE: State budget includes prison alternatives funding

Montgomery County has already begun tapping into the first installment of about $3.1 million grant funds it could receive if it meets all the two-year programs requirements.

While leaders are split on the issue, Warren County is turning down the chance for more than $940,000.

“T-CAP is going to be a disaster. It is going to fail,” Common Pleas Judge Donald Oda said.

Oda’s comments came during a discussion with the commissioners about whether the county will fund nearly $400,000 in requests tied to anticipated loss of state grants ending next year in favor of the T-CAP program.

The T-CAP grants “provide funds to local communities to effectively supervise, treat and hold accountable low-level, non-violent offenders, and at the same time safely reduce Ohio’s prison population,” according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC).

MORE: Warren County Jail crowded at time of near riot

The grants assume a reduction of more than 90,000 inmates in state prisons over the next two years.

“ODRC reserves the right to amend the T-CAP grant program should those population averages not be realized,” ODRC said in responses to questions for this story.

Some officials see the shift of low-level felons to local jails as inevitable.

“At the end of the day, they are forcing you to go that direction,” Warren County Sheriff Larry Sims said during a discussion with county commissioners over what to do about jail crowding problems expected to persist until a new $50 million jail is built.

MORE: Who’s In Jail? Latest Montgomery County Bookings

Counties have until Dec. 1 to apply for funding during the first year of the program.

Elsewhere in the region, Darke County’s grant could bring in more than $178,000 over the next two years.

Butler and Montgomery counties were among those designated as “targets” of the program.

Butler County had yet to decide whether to accept a grant of just under $2.5 million in 2018 and 2019, according to ODRC.

“Thirty-eight counties have opted in,” Dare said. “We’ve already implemented it” on Sept. 18.

MORE: Warren County taxpayers get to weigh in on $50 million jail plan

The program sets daily per diems for inmates meeting program criteria who stay local.

For example, Montgomery County loses $72 a day for every fifth-degree felon sent to prison despite fitting the criteria, Dare said.

Common Pleas Court officials in Montgomery County are working with Sheriff Phil Plummer and municipal court officials. They are concerned an influx of felons into the county jail could take away space otherwise available in misdemeanor cases, Dare said.

T-CAP funds are being used by Plummer to expedite drug treatment. In addition, Dare said the state had turned over two buildings off Gettysburg Avenue in Dayton for alternative programs.

Montgomery County projects 200 more prisoners a year in the local jail under the guidelines.

MORE: Whose In Jail: Latest Warren County Bookings

On Friday, Dare said the jail is at 760 inmates, less than the 840 mark preferred and the 914-prisoner capacity.

“I don’t think it’s going to put undue stress on the jail,” Dare said, noting some would only be serving out the final months of their sentences.

While T-CAP-funded programs are already up and running, the state budget bill, in which the law is spelled out, takes effect on July 1, 2018.

The money is coming from funds otherwise used to operate state prisons, Dare said.

“We’re all going to be looking and watching to make sure this works,” he said.

Greene County opted out of as much as $873,739.

“It used to be felons went to prison,” Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer said. “The state’s trying to use this to save money on their end.”

The program also fails to look at the criminal history of defendants, instead basing decisions on the newest conviction, according to Brian Martin, director of probation in Greene county.

In addition, Martin said even more serious cases involving fourth-degree felons could be headed back to local facilities in counties taking T-CAP funds.

In Warren County, Oda and Judge Tim Tepe opposed accepting the grant, but Judge Robert Peeler favored taking the money as a way to offset the expense of alternative sentencing programs already in place to keep low-level offenders out of prison.

However, Peeler acknowledged the problem of dealing with drug-addicted offenders who fail to respond to treatment programs and wind up back in criminal courts.

“It’s just a big circle. It’s frustrating for everyone involved,” Peeler said during a work session during which the county commissioners urged the judges to accept a T-CAP grant.

The debate was part of budget discussions with the county commissioners.

The judges are seeking $370,986 for programs that were funded through state grants that will end on March 30.

The commissioners are trying to limit growth in the county budget in anticipation of hefty debt payments for a new jail and other rising costs.

“Here’s a $400,000 shortfall. Is it worth it?” Commissioner Dave Young said, suggesting the state would shift the burden back to the county level, regardless of opposition.

Oda said opting out left local judges with the “big prison stick” in cases warranting a prison sentence.

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