December 18, 2008 -- Akron Beacon Journal (OH)

Ohio Bill Seeks To Ease Prison Crowding

By Julie Carr Smyth, AP Statehouse Correspondent

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Non-violent drug offenders could spend more time in halfway houses instead of in prison. Well-behaved inmates who earn their GEDs could get out early. Others could serve the final months of their sentences outside prison while wearing GPS devices.

These are just some of the options Gov. Ted Strickland's administration is considering to contend with crowded prisons amid forecasts of plummeting state revenues.

"To me, it comes down to a simple formula," said state prisons director Terry Collins. "Either we spend a whole lot more money on building a whole lot more prisons to lock up everybody in Ohio, or we can figure out some other solutions so that all those other programs -- like social services, education, Medicaid -- have the money they need."

In a document recently shared with state lawmakers, Collins outlined 15 options for reducing the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction's 51,000-prisoner population -- and its hefty annual budget of about $1.8 billion.

The document's final page included a subtle reminder to lawmakers: Collins has the ability to declare a prison overcrowding emergency that could result, with legislative or gubernatorial approval, in the reduction of sentences in 30-, 60- and 90-day increments to alleviate the problem. Collins said it's a matter of state spending priorities.

"I'm just saying why don't we look at something different, so my grandkids and other people's grandkids in this state can get some education?" Collins said in an interview. "I'm not looking to empty the prisons. I'm looking to be smart about it."

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said care would have to be taken if prison housing guidelines were rewritten. He said some low-level felons, such as first time drunken drivers or people who have assaulted a domestic partner, are susceptible to repeat offenses.

"Those powder keg kind of people are low-level offenders today that tomorrow could be a homicide," he said.

In Ohio, prisons are at 133 percent capacity. He said the lack of personal space leads to more violence and more dangerous conditions for both prisoners and staff.

He said he'd be happy if capacity were narrowed back to 100 percent again.

"That's like Santa Claus would bring me everything I wanted for Christmas," he said.

Some of Collins' recommendations were included in a sweeping law enforcement bill passed late Wednesday and sent to Gov. Strickland's desk. The bill gives judges broader discretion in sentencing 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-degree felons to community-based facilities instead of prison, particularly those with drug addictions.

The proposal passed the Senate 28-3 and received its final sign-off from the House.

The U.S. prison population is the largest in the world, largely due to tougher sentences states have imposed in recent years on drunken drivers, drug offenders, sex offenders and others.

Collins said he views the bill as a foundation to build on. Among other scenarios his department is exploring are:

* Allowing low-level, non-sex offenders serving 12 months or less to spend a third of their sentence in prison, a third in a halfway house, and a third with a GPS monitor. Savings: 3,083 prison beds, $19 million over the biennium.

* Increasing prison diversion programs paid through the Community Corrections Act. Savings: Up to 2,804 prison beds, and, for a $5 million expenditure, $14.8 million in unneeded construction costs.

* Allowing offenders serving the shortest sentences, less than 30 days, to serve their time in local custody, with the state paying counties incentives for the service. Savings: 160 prison beds, $725,849.

* Stepping down low-level, non-violent, non-sex offenders directly to GPS supervision, rather than to community programs, for their final 90 days. Savings: 700 prison beds, $1.3 million.

* Trimming sentences by up to 15 percent for those who complete classes or recovery programs behind bars. Savings: 800 prison beds, $1.7 million.

* Diverting those serving time for child support violations to community-based facilities. Savings: 438 prison beds, $3.4 million.

* Equalizing powder and crack cocaine offenses, in a manner the federal government recently recommended. Savings: 1,450 beds, $10.4 million.

Collins cautioned that all the scenarios are in the brainstorming stages. None is a formal budget proposal.

O'Brien said such creative solutions may be needed to free up the cash to avoid closing prisons, which he sees as a far worse option. But he said halfway houses also require cash.

"The money has to there to build, operate, maintain and staff those community-based corrections facilities," he said. "You can't just say more people need to be sent there and not fund them."

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