Ohio program keeps felons out of prison

Local law enforcement struggles to find jail space for inmates – 

By Patricia Beech – 

The Ohio program allowing low-level felony offenders to escape prison time and instead remain under supervision in their own communities is coming under fire because of the financial burden it places on some counties across the state, especially those that are economically disadvantaged with large segments of population living at or below the poverty line.
At issue are efforts to ensure public safety while reducing the number of people sent to prison, but county officials across Ohio are saying the state isn’t providing sufficient funds for communities to successfully implement the program.
To date, nearly 50 Ohio counties have agreed to participate in the program, including Adams County.
According to Sheriff Kimmy Rogers, the program not only puts an additional burden on local law enforcement, it also puts an additional drain on the county’s general fund, which stands to lose millions once the Killen and J.M. Stuart power plants close later this year.
“I think if you ask the people of Adams County, they’d agree this burden should not be put on our local jail,” said Rogers. “Our office has fewer employees today than we had in 2008, but at the same time, the number of inmates in our jail is being increased, dramatically.”
Offenders participating in the program are non-violent, with most having been found guilty of drug possession or theft. Once released from prison, they are housed in local jails, workhouse facilities, halfway houses, or are placed on supervised probation.
According to Rogers, health issues associated with these inmates – such as pregnancy, mental illness, contagious diseases, and sexually transmitted diseases – are a major expense being heaped on an already-strapped county budget.
“As long as people are out there committing criminal acts, Medicaid covers their medical costs,” he said. “The minute we stop those criminal acts and incarcerate the people, their Medicaid stops and the cost of their health care becomes the responsibility of the county.”
According to the Ohio Department of Corrections, approximately 4,000 offenders convicted of fifth-degree felonies were sentenced in 2016, while the state prison population dropped from 50,000 to 49,000 inmates.
Ohio plans to reduce its total prison population to 48,000.
To achieve that goal, legislators have laid out new sentencing guidelines for the courts, which many say fail to hold law-breakers accountable.
For instance, Ohio judges are now required to put Felony 5 offenders – with no priors – on probation, instead of sentencing them to the maximum 12 months in prison. Under the new sentencing guidelines, offenders who have their probation revoked for any reason, other than committing a new crime, can only be sentenced to three months, instead of the usual 12-month penalty.
“We have to understand there are people who have criminal minds,” says Rogers. “We have good people who have become drug addicted, and we’ve got people who have criminal minds getting drug addicted, when you take the drugs away from a good person you’ve got a good person, but when you take the drugs away from a criminal, you still have a criminal.”
Adams County Prosecutor, David Kelley said he estimates that only “10 percent of people in the program are simply addicts, while the other 90% are there because they are criminals.”
“We’re treating the people who sell drugs the same as the people who are addicted,” said Kelley. “But, they are not the same at all. People who sell drugs have criminal minds.”
“I think that’s one reason why we can’t get a handle on this thing,” says Rogers. “When someone commits a crime in the vicinity of drugs, we’re blaming it on drug addiction, and that is not always the case.”
The sentencing guidelines are not the only issue drawing money from Adams County’s diminishing general fund.
Rogers said that probation detainers, child enforcement warrants, and bench warrants all have a negative economic impact on the county budget.
“The state spends money here to keep people out of jail through treatment, but when recovery doesn’t work, a Probation Detainer is issued and that person goes to jail, and the money to keep him there comes straight from the county’s general fund.”
He said the same is true of child support warrants.
“We have all this money coming into the county to enforce child support, and if they’re paying everything’s good, but if they don’t pay they’re arrested and placed in the county jail – no money comes with that,” he said. “It’s paid by local taxpayers through the county general fund.”
Taxpayers also foot the bill when Bench Warrants are issued to people who don’t show up in court to pay traffic fines. The money to jail them also comes out of the county general fund.
The new sentencing guidelines do have supporters who argue that the reforms are not only lowering the prison population, but are also improving recidivism rates.
Ohio’s prisons, which were built to house 38,579 inmates, have been overcrowded for decades. According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the state’s prison population has increased by roughly 15 percent since 2005.
“I understand that prisons are overcrowded,” says Rogers. “But, they’re kicking the problem down the road to us because they know we can’t kick it back to them.”