Why Butler County is preparing for an influx of inmates

Soon Butler County judges must keep felony five offenders in the local jail rather than send them to a state prison, but what appeared to be a major unfunded mandate from the state might not be.

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From the monetary standpoint Common Pleas Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison said the original $2.6 million to $4 million annual estimate it will take to keep low level, non-violent criminals here — either in the jail or in some other type of corrections program — is down to about $1.25 million, based on the current caseload and other statistics the court and sheriff’s office have culled.

“Right now it’s trending in a good direction but it could change overnight if we get a bunch of probation violators, if we get a bunch of new criminal indictments, stuff we don’t have control over,” Gilkison said, noting the new projection would cover incarcerating about 160 inmates for an average of 108 days each.

A new law requires Ohio’s 10 largest counties — Butler County is No. 7 — to stop sending non-violent felony offenders who commit low level crimes to prison, with the idea that lasting rehabilitation is more likely to occur at the local level than in state prisons.

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If the trends hold true, the state grant the county has received — $1.2 million — will just about cover the cost. The county did not apply for the grant funding when it became available under the new law last summer, because if they had, they would have had to start housing the additional prisoners immediately. Officials said that was impossible because they were still formulating a plan to handle the influx of inmates.

The county is also preparing for alternative sentencing options like electronic monitoring of offenders. The county commissioners this week ratified a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the courts and sheriff regarding the use of electronic monitoring as opposed to incarceration. They also approved a $152,073 appropriation for the sheriff to cover two employees to manage the program and other costs associated with the monitoring program.

Butler County Sheriff’s Major Mike Craft said since this program is new to the county they are going to roll it slowly, starting with 21 ankle bracelets.

“We’re going to start the program slow and master it and make sure it’s right and all the bugs are worked out before we expand,” Craft said. “But the sky is the limit on this, it is an amazing alternative to incarceration, incarceration is so expensive.”

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The MOU with the state stipulates no more than half of the state money — that was a state stipulation — can be used on boarding these offenders in the jail and the daily rate for housing these offenders will be $72.

From a philosophical standpoint, local lawyers — on both sides of bar, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys — and judges say the state legislature has no business taking sentencing discretion away from judges.

“I am generally opposed to the legislature taking away discretion from judges,” Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said. “Judges are trained to determine appropriate penalties. I’m not confident the legislature is, over what a judge does on a daily basis.”

Defense attorney Charlie M. Rittgers agreed in every case, criminal or civil, the judge is in the best position to determine disposition.

However, he said for this particular class of offenders, prison often isn’t the best solution. Typical felony five offenses are: felony non support of dependents; theft; possession of drugs; breaking and entering and receiving stolen property.

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“A non-violent F-5 I would challenge most people to find a case where someone needs prison as opposed to some other type of rehabilitation,” Rittgers said. “I think that it would be few and far between where there are cases where judges want to send someone on an F-5 to prison.”

While at the jail or on monitoring, offenders will receive all or a combination of services — expanded programs supported by the state grant — designed to help them overcome barriers such as mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of education and a host of others.

The judges will still make the final sentencing decision but they have lost one of their options. Butler County Common Pleas Judge Noah Powers told the Journal-News he thinks there is reason for concern under this new law. He knows the people who appear in his court, he knows what would be best for them and he said the state legislators can’t possibly make those decisions.

He said the state is “shirking” its duty to deal with felony offenders after they have been convicted.

“It depends on each case, but the fact they’ve hamstrung us and kept us from sending certain people to prison, yes it’s a concern, and it ought to be,” Powers said.

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