Ohio’s overcrowded and costly prisons have stymied state officials for years but Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr says he has a plan to keep 4,000 offenders out of state prison and it’ll save money.
When Mohr began his corrections career in 1974 as a teacher’s aide, there were just 8,300 inmates in Ohio prisons. Now DRC employs 12,242, incarcerates 50,552 and spends $1.67 billion a year.
Mohr, who has led DRC since January 2011, has pushed reform but the changes so far have failed to move the numbers south.
Now Mohr is advancing a plan embedded in Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal that will pay counties to keep low-level, non-violent felons out of state prisons. The program, which would be voluntary, would pay counties $23 per day per inmate not sent to state prison. (It costs DRC an average of $67.84 to incarcerate an inmate for a day.)
Counties would use the money for enhanced supervision, electronic monitoring, drug treatment or other sanctions and remedies deemed appropriate by judges handling the criminal cases.
“What I’m going to try to do over my last budget here is to try to reform, try to make a big difference and not just tinker,” Mohr said.
Ohio’s opiate and heroin addiction crisis is fueling crimes and prison sentences.
“Just think about this. The number one offense for which people come to prison, both men and women, and quite frankly women at a much higher rate, is drug possession. And that is their most serious offense. It’s not linked with armed robbery or something,” Mohr said.
Mohr noted that research shows that non-violent, low-level offenders who are kept out of prison are twice as likely to succeed at one-third the cost to taxpayers.
Typically, 8,000 to 8,300 people go to state prisons each year with less than a one-year sentence and roughly half of them would qualify to be sanctioned or treated in local programs, according to DRC’s calculations.
It started as a pilot program in October in Clinton County Common Pleas Court where Judge John W. “Tim” Rudduck agreed to divert low-level offenders into local options. Rudduck reports that in the past four months he hasn’t sent a single low-level felon to state prison and he is using the prison grant money to pay for a supervising officer, drug court programs, a medical adviser to consult on addiction issues, a shuttle service to get offenders to and from court and other key appointments and a new sober living housing set up for addicts just leaving treatment.
Rudduck said he isn’t sure how well the diversion program will roll out to all 88 Ohio counties. “I think there will be some resistance, understandably so. There are different philosophies on this,” said Rudduck, a Republican who has been on the bench since 1985.
Rudduck said he has invested time and energy educating the public and officeholders about drug addiction. “Putting people behind a cage for using a pill or a drug isn’t the solution.”
A 55-page report published in 2016 by the Brennan Center for Justice concludes that of the 1.46 million state and federal prisoners, roughly 576,000, or 39 percent, are incarcerated “with little public safety rationale” and their release would save nearly $20 billion a year. Roughly 25 percent of prisoners, or 364,000 people, are low-level offenders who could be more effectively and efficiently sanctioned in the community, the report said. It also noted that 79 percent of current prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness and 40 percent suffer from both.
Mohr also wants to ramp up the number of inmates completing their GEDs by certifying literate inmates to act as tutors at study tables within the prisons. Mohr would give prisoners incentives to get their high school equivalency diploma: they’ll be eligible to get out 90 days early. GEDs are showed to make the biggest impact on reducing the chances an offender will return to prison after his or her release, he said.
Ohio DRC’s recidivism rate is 29.26 percent, slightly higher than the 28.7 percent hit in 2009, but still well below the national average of 49.7 percent.
People who have non-violent criminal histories linked to drug addiction may be in line for a clean slate. Mohr is also working with state Sen. John Eklund, R-Chardon, on a bill that would expand judges’ authority to seal or expunge criminal records of non-violent offenders.
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.