Ohio’s choice on prisons

Another costly and futile state prison-building boom would serve neither economic nor public-safety interests


Until now, Gary Mohr, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has flown under the radar. An appointee of Gov. John Kasich, Mr. Mohr, before he became corrections chief nearly three years ago, spent time as a consultant for private prisons, an industry not known for its progressive stands on corrections policies.

Nor have Mr. Mohr’s views on broad policy matters been widely known, despite decades of public service in Ohio. The state’s 28 prisons now hold more than 50,000 inmates, 30 percent above capacity. The director has spent the past year grappling with a growing population and crowding crisis, aggravated by budget pressures that restrict efforts to increase resources and personnel in a prison system that already costs $1.5 billion a year.

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In an extraordinarily candid interview this month with The Blade’s editorial page, Mr. Mohr laid out a progressive agenda to manage Ohio’s prison population and alleviate crowding. It includes smart-sentencing reforms, alternatives to incarceration for some nonviolent offenders, and programs aimed at preparing inmates for life after prison.

These changes would not only promote public safety, but also cost far less than a futile race to incarcerate.

Mr. Mohr rejected building more prisons, even suggesting that he would resign if that’s the direction Ohio takes. A prison can cost $30 million a year to run, with each inmate costing about $25,000 a year to incarcerate. The most effective way to control the corrections budget is to manage the population.

Here and around the country, tough and inflexible sentencing policies have quadrupled prison populations over the past 35 years, with no demonstrated effect on crime rates. Once they are built, prisons become almost impossible to close, as communities and politicians view them as recession-proof providers of good-paying jobs.

Diverting more low-level offenders from prison makes sense and could make an enormous difference. Nearly 45 percent of the more than 20,000 people a year who go to prison in Ohio serve less than a year.

As Mr. Mohr points out, that is not enough time to do anything constructive to make them productive citizens. Placing them in shorter but more intensive programs would not only ensure better outcomes but also cost less.

At the same time, expanding so-called reintegration centers for some probation and parole violators could drastically reduce the number of offenders who return to prison on technical violations — infractions that break supervision rules but not the law.

Mr. Mohr does not advance these ideas lightly. He stresses evidence-based initiatives with demonstrated results.

Under Mr. Mohr, the department has made rehabilitation a core part of its mission. So far, the results are encouraging: The recidivism rate has dropped to a record low 28.7 percent.

That means fewer offenders committing crimes and returning to prison, and more of them finding jobs, paying taxes, and supporting their families. The success stories of the more than 70 percent of inmates who leave prison for good aren’t often heard or told, but they happen every day.

Some of Mr. Mohr’s initiatives will take time to pay off. They require a front-end investment that shortsighted politicians are reluctant to make. But building prisons also requires an enormous initial investment, with no cost savings later.

Whether the General Assembly will give Mr. Mohr’s initiatives a chance, or plow ahead with building more prisons, will depend partly on whether Mr. Kasich has the courage and foresight to back them. Many of the most vociferous critics of reform will likely come from the governor’s own Republican Party.

Ohio can continue the failed corrections policies of the past. Or it can move forward with sensible, safe ways to manage its prison population and provide opportunities for change to inmates who want to become productive citizens.