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Published: Saturday, 7/2/2011

Prison progress

A budget crisis finally achieved what years of advocacy of corrections reform did not: to force Ohio lawmakers to relieve overcrowding and high costs at state prisons with sensible changes in criminal sentencing.

A bill approved by the General Assembly with bipartisan support and signed by Gov. John Kasich aims to meet that goal. But its realization will depend on how adequately Columbus provides financial support for community-based corrections programs.

The sentencing overhaul aims to reduce Ohio's prison population by diverting nonviolent and first-time offenders to local facilities. Aside from cutting the state's soaring prison budget -- more than $1 billion a year to support 31 percent more inmates than the system was designed to house -- the law will help separate hardened criminals from those with better prospects for rehabilitation.

But these alternative programs will place added pressure on local courts, probation officers, jails, and treatment facilities. If they don't get the resources they need to handle the influx of offenders, the reform could backfire and recidivism could increase.

The sentencing law requires the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to adopt standards that specify which categories of offenders are suitable for community-based correction facilities and programs. The department must relate state aid to each facility to the number of inmates it serves.

The adequacy of state support of community substance-abuse treatment programs and job training also is crucial to the success of the sentencing reforms. Overall, though, the new law promises to give courts more flexibility in deciding which offenders go to prison and how long they stay behind bars.

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