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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2014

EDITORIAL

Slow the revolving door

Community supervision and sanctions for low-level offenders are preferable to more prisons

Mohr Mohr
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As new statistics show record-low recidivism rates for Ohio inmates, the state continues to slow prison’s revolving door. It has done so largely with community-based corrections programs and a strong network of local re-entry coalitions that cover 71 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Lucas County.

These investments are paying off, demonstrating that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, with an annual budget of $1.5 billion, can safely and cost-effectively manage its inmate population without more prisons.

Moreover, Ohio’s Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act will assist thousands of newly released inmates — perhaps 90 percent or more — to get medical care and mental health and substance abuse treatment.

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“Medicaid expansion could make the most positive contribution to criminal justice reform that I’ve seen in nearly 40 years,” rehabilitation and correction Director Gary Mohr told The Blade’s editorial page last week.

By summer, his department wants every eligible inmate who leaves prison to be enrolled in Medicaid, instead of having to spend weeks or months after release getting signed up and assessed. Roughly 20 percent of the prison population has mental health needs; 80 percent has a history of substance abuse.

Mr. Mohr has made reducing recidivism a core part of the department’s mission. Ohio’s recidivism rate has dropped to 27.1 percent, from the previous record low of 28.7 percent. For offenders convicted in Lucas County, the latest recidivism rate is even lower — 22.6 percent, according to corrections department records.

Recidivism rates are calculated over three years; the current rate is based on offenders who were released in 2010. Reasons for re-incarceration include not only new crimes but also so-called technical violations, such as testing positive for drugs or not showing up for meetings with a parole officer.

A decade ago, the state reported recidivism rates of nearly 40 percent, close to the current national average. Ohio’s success since then is especially impressive, given the state’s heroin epidemic and a still-struggling economy.

The state’s 28 prisons release more than 22,500 inmates a year. Reducing recidivism is an effective way to manage prison populations and control the enormous costs of corrections.

Here and around the nation, more than 95 percent of prison inmates will eventually return to their communities. There, they often face overwhelming obstacles in securing housing, employment, education, and, if needed, mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Everyone benefits when former offenders become productive citizens, pay taxes, and support their families, instead of committing new crimes and returning to prison at a cost to taxpayers of $25,000 a year.

Mr. Mohr credited local re-entry coalitions for much of the state’s success. The Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio, which includes public agencies, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and faith-based groups, has enabled attorneys to work with prisoners months before their release to straighten out legal issues, such as outstanding warrants, fines, license suspensions, and child support orders.

Newly released offenders also get support from their peers and are connected to agencies that can help, such as the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority, Owens Community College, and Lucas County Job and Family Services.

The corrections department is working with local judges to ensure they understand the range of options for probation violators, Mr. Mohr said. Community-based programs are often more effective in changing behavior, and cost five times less than incarceration.

The department is also getting more faith-based groups involved with inmates, before and after they’re released. Mr. Mohr cited new programs that give parenting skills and strengthen families.

Now, children with incarcerated parents are six or seven times more likely to go to prison themselves. “We’re trying to do things differently,” he said.

Despite reforms that have eliminated the need for thousands of prison beds, Ohio’s prison population — now at 50,479 inmates — continues to rise. Mr. Mohr has wisely ruled out building more prisons, opting instead to expand community-based options for low-level offenders — including halfway houses, nonresidential programs, and medication-assisted drug treatment — and other reforms that have shown success.

“I think it’s time to invest in people, and not brick and mortar,” he told The Blade. It’s excellent advice that Ohio lawmakers should heed.



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