As Ohio counties work to rein in overcrowding at county jails, area law enforcement officials fear a change in state law will increase jail populations even more.
State lawmakers this summer passed the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program, which prevents judges from sending certain low-level felony offenders to state prison. The program is mandated for the state’s 10 largest counties – including Butler and Montgomery — and optional for the rest.
But some local law enforcement officials are opposed to the new law, saying it will push the problem down to the local level.
“It’s an unfunded mandate that’s coming our way and it’s going to shove felons down our throats,” Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones said. “We’re going to have to start pushing people out of jail to make room for these people, who should be in prison.”
Program proponents say the goal is treatment, and they emphasize that the target population is non-violent/non-sex offenders with sentences of less than a year.
“(TCAP) doesn’t mean the jail population has to increase, absolutely not,” said state Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton. “Here’s what the real plan is: Instead of sending somebody who has a misdemeanor or low-level felony (to prison), let’s find out what the problem is for that individual. Let’s put them on probation and let’s get the services to deal with that problem.”
Those who qualify under TCAP can get increased community control sanctions that don’t include prison time, such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services, or job training.
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Last year, the state prison system housed 4,089 inmates who w0uld have met the criteria for TCAP. Slightly less than half had previously violated community control sanctions, and slightly more than half had been in state prison before.
As an incentive for counties, the program comes with grants totaling $34.4 million over the next two years that can be used for costs such as increased probation staff and supervision tools; it cannot be used to build bigger jails.
“What we’re hoping occurs is the counties look at their system in maybe a more global respect,” said Cynthia Mausser, who manages TCAP for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.
“Their jail space could be freed up with the right services in place, and that space could be taken up by someone a judge really feels needs a incarcerate setting.”
Darke County Common Pleas Court Judge Jonathan Hein is an adamant supporter.
“You send a person with educational, employment, or substance abuse problems to prison, they become real good at being maladjusted,” he said. “We’re trying to not make better criminals. We’re going to make sober, working people.”
But Hein acknowledges that some counties will need to ramp up the type of service networks needed, particularly for offenders with mental health issues.
“Probably a third of the people in jail are mental health problems who got themselves arrested,” he said. “So if you reduce the jail population by a third—because they’re mental health issues – you don’t have (an overcrowding) problem.”
Many area law enforcement officials are skeptical.
“Even if you have increased probation programs, increased ankle bracelets, some of these people are going to violate probation,” said Miami County Sheriff Dave Duchak, whose county decided not to participate in TCAP. “They’re going to get (probation violated) and then they come to jail, and they will,”
“The state is abdicating (its) responsibility to house felons and they’re trying to put the costs on the counties,” he said.
Jones, who houses some federal prisoners that he accepts from other counties, said he’ll be forced to take fewer of those if he ends up with 200 more felony prisoners from TCAP.
Montgomery County Chief Deputy Rob Streck estimated that Montgomery County’s jail could end up with 300 more inmates because of TCAP.
“Although TCAP provides some reimbursement, it does not equal out to the actual costs of holding hundreds of additional inmates for long periods of time,” he said.
Dozens of counties have volunteered to participate in exchange for funds that will allow them to set up community control programs. Montgomery County opted to start participating before the June 2018 official start date in exchange for state funds.
Montgomery County Court Administrator Jim Dare said it’s too early to know what the impact will be. If offenders can stay in community control at a cost of $3.47 a day, it’ll be a budget win, he said. If they end up costing the county $61.75 a day — the county’s cost for jailing an inmate — it won’t.
Inmate advocates generally support getting people out of prison and into community treatment, but they say the program won’t accomplish anything if the people who would have gone to prison instead end up in overcrowded, sub-standard jails.
“Having them closer to where their support systems are, where their connections are, is better,” said Mike Brickner, policy director of the ACLU of Ohio. But, he added, “If local control is just incarcerating that person in the jail and not giving them treatment and not providing that support, we’ve essentially just traded one cage for another.”
JUSTICE N THE JAILHOUSE