Ohio’s already crowded prison system is projected to reach a record 51,601 inmates by midyear — a population more than 4,100 prisoners higher than state officials predicted in 2012.
More-crowded prisons could spark violence and undermine rehabilitation efforts, as double-bunking increases and opportunities for prisoner education, training, treatment, and recreation diminish. Crowding has almost certainly contributed to violence at the maximum-security Toledo Correctional Institution, which last October reported its fourth death in 13 months.
Ohio must take smart, safe, and sustainable action to manage its $1.5-billion-a-year prison system. It should reject, however, calls to build more prisons — as Gary Mohr, director of the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, wisely did in a recent interview with The Blade’s editorial page. “That has not worked,” he said.
Instead, Mr. Mohr seeks to, among other things, increase community-based sanctions for probation violators and to expand treatment for drug addiction, especially to opiates.
The director also properly defended Ohio’s efforts, starting more than two years ago, to manage prison crowding by expanding community-based programs and sanctions. He noted that such reforms have eliminated the need for 700 to 800 prison beds. Sentencing changes were largely responsible for 53 straight weeks of decline, from May, 2011, to June, 2012, in Ohio’s prison population.
Since then, however, despite these reforms and re-entry programs that have helped reduce recidivism to record-low levels, Ohio’s prison population has steadily risen, reaching 50,555 at the end of last month. Ohio’s 28 prisons — built to hold about 38,500 inmates — exceed that capacity by more than 30 percent.
Even so, contrary to what many Ohioans believe, violent offenders entering prison are not causing the rise. Instead, probation violators are driving it — most of them nonviolent offenders who are returning to prison for breaking probation rules — so-called technical violations — not for committing new crimes.
Probation violators make up 25 percent — roughly 5,100 cases a year — of Ohio’s prison intake. Recidivism rates for probation violators are higher in rural than in urban counties, Mr. Mohr said.
Probation violators who return to prison stay, on average, slightly longer than a year. If more community options and sanctions were available, local judges would be more likely to keep these violators out of prison.
Mr. Mohr seeks to reallocate more than $4 million in corrections money to pay for local programs and services, including residential treatment, to keep probation violators in the community. Another 75 parole officers and community supervision staff would more closely monitor high-risk offenders and help them find jobs and housing, as well as work with probation violators. Such a sensible, safe, cost-effective strategy would save money and increase public safety.
On average, it costs $25,000 a year to incarcerate each inmate in Ohio, compared with less than $5,000 for community-based supervision. Each prison can cost $30 million a year to run.
Ohio also needs more community drug treatment programs, particularly in response to a heroin epidemic that often starts with abuse of prescription painkillers. Roughly 80 percent of offenders who go to prison have a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
“We’re seeing a spike in people convicted of possessing heroin,” Mr. Mohr said. “Those kinds of problems are more effectively handled in the community.”
Nearly 45 percent of the more than 20,000 people a year who go to prison in Ohio serve less than a year. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to enroll them in appropriate and effective programs before they leave. Intensive community programs often make more sense.
Here and across 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, politically, almost impossible to close.
The reforms proposed by Mr. Mohr require the kind of front-end investment that shortsighted politicians are always reluctant to make. But building prisons also requires an enormous initial investment, with no cost savings later.
Other states and the federal government also seek options. The new federal budget bill creates a bipartisan task force charged with reviewing the nation’s bloated federal prison system, whose population has increased nearly eightfold since 1980.
At the same time, a task force on federal corrections will recommend evidence-based policies and programs that maintain public safety while reducing crowding in federal prisons.
In Ohio and nationwide, the race to incarcerate and related prison-building boom have been a colossal and costly failure. Ohio should learn from that.
The community-based sanctions and other reforms proposed by Director Mohr are far more sensible, safe, and cost-effective than building more prisons.