Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic is inflating the state’s prison population. It will continue to make Ohio’s 28 prisons even more crowded unless the state expands community-based options to incarceration, and creates in-prison programs that focus on opioid and heroin addiction. Nearly 10,000 prisoners leave Ohio prisons each year with severe histories of addiction.
The alternative — building more prisons to house nonviolent offenders — is impractical, ineffective, and inhumane. It’s a costly road to nowhere that Gary Mohr, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, rightly rejects.
The share of inmates entering prison for heroin-related crimes increased more than fivefold, rising from 1.6 percent of admissions in 2000 to 8.3 percent in 2013, the correction department reports. Ohio’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system takes in more than 20,000 people annually. That means more than 1,500 people a year now enter state prisons for heroin-related offenses.
Treating many of these drug offenders in the community would cost a fraction of the $25,000 a year it costs to incarcerate each one of them. And treating their addiction would do far more to keep them from returning to crime and prison.
Ohio’s crowded prisons are more than 30 percent over capacity. After declining in 2011 and early 2012, the state’s prison population has risen fairly steadily over the past two years, to 50,639 inmates today.
Four out of five inmates go to prison with a history of drug abuse. Statistical profiles of the state’s incoming inmates underscore the need for change. They show many low-level offenders with short sentences that community-based sanctions could more effectively handle at a fraction of the cost.
More than 5,000 people a year go to prison in Ohio for drug crimes, mostly low-level offenses. Almost the same number of incoming prisoners — most of them addicts — have never been arrested for, or convicted of, a violent offense.
Nearly 45 percent of those who go to prison each year in Ohio — almost 9,000 people — serve less than a year. That’s not enough time for them to get involved in meaningful programs that would reduce their chances of returning to prison.
The number of female offenders going to state prisons last year, many of them low-level drug offenders, increased by 11 percent from the year before. Nearly 25 percent of those going to prison did not commit new crimes, but instead violated probation rules.
State lawmakers introduced more than a dozen bills this year to deal with Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic, including four that were signed into law this spring. As part of that effort, they should enact sentencing reforms that divert nonviolent offenders from prison and expand evidence-based options, including drug courts that offer medication-assisted treatment. The administration of Gov. John Kasich is funding, starting this year, medication-assisted treatment in drug courts in six counties, but these pilots are not nearly enough.
Ohio’s Medicaid expansion will greatly assist the state in such efforts, as 90 percent of inmates released from Ohio state prisons will be eligible for benefits. Now, judges simply do not have enough options for community sentencing.
Mr. Mohr rightly opposes more prisons. The cost to build and run one prison for 20 years is a staggering $1 billion.
“I believe those resources are best allocated to the people here,” Mr. Mohr told nearly 1,000 people, most of them local treatment providers, at a conference on addiction in Columbus last month.
“If we put nonviolent folks in evidence-based programs in the community, they are better off,” he said. “You will do a better job than I will do in turning their lives around.”
He’s right. If Ohio builds more prisons, it will find a way to fill them. And once they’re built, they become, politically, almost impossible to close.
In his 3½ years as director, Mr. Mohr has moved Ohio in the right direction. The state’s recidivism rate has dropped to a record low 27.1 percent (the national average is almost 50 percent). But he will need a lot of help from the General Assembly to create the community-based treatment options, rather than more incarceration, that Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic demands.