COLUMBUS - Ohio's prisons are bursting at the seams, and the state's top warden said he isn't afraid to pull an emergency switch to relieve the pressure if lawmakers don't act soon.
With the governor's approval and in consultation with lawmakers, Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Terry Collins could release some inmates as much as 90 days before their sentences are up to reduce a prison population that has swollen to almost a third more than the system was designed to handle.
"I can't continue, and I can't ask my staff to continue every day to deal with the crowding situation that we have," he said.
The budget crisis, during which the state is grabbing every federal stimulus dollar it can find, refinancing debt, and raising numerous fees to get through the next two years, has served as the setting for Mr. Collins to present lawmakers with a choice.
Either reform sentencing laws to divert nonviolent, shorter-stay criminals to treatment programs, community settings, or electronic monitoring, or spend upward of $1 billion to build new prisons.
In April, 51,062 inmates were incarcerated in 32 state prisons designed to hold 38,665 prisoners. That's 32 percent over capacity, but still slightly less than the record of 51,273 inmates set in November.
Prison cells designed to hold one inmate now house two. Bunk beds have been placed in common areas of prisons where inmates socialize and watch TV.
The stopgap arrangements have cut off correctional officers' line of sight as they monitor prisoners, and tensions are building among inmates.
"The more people you have in a confined space, they start losing personal space," Mr. Collins said. "Regardless of whether you're an offender, John Q. Citizen, or a multimillionaire, we don't like somebody in our face."
Overcrowding was one of the causes cited for an 11-day riot in 1993 at the Lucasville prison in southern Ohio during which a guard and nine inmates were killed. Despite the new crowding problem, Mr. Collins said the department is not the same as in 1993.
"We have done so many things to help manage the crowding situation," he said. "One of the biggest differences today versus back then is 57 percent of the people I get come and go in 12 months. So a huge percentage of the individuals don't want to cause any trouble. They want to come in and do their time."
With the rising population have come rising health-care, food, and manpower costs, all coming to a head as the state considers a $55 billion, two-year budget. The department is a $1.8 billion-a-year operation that accounts for one in every four state employees.
Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, proposed a series of sentencing reforms that his administration has held up as an example of how changes made could translate into budget savings beyond the next two years. To some extent, the changes would reverse course from Senate Bill 2, the "truth-in-sentencing" law of 1996 that required inmates to serve the time imposed by judges and required judges to sentence inmates to a specific amount of years, not a range.
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) sponsored the 1996 law while a state senator.
"When a judge sentences an individual, it should be for the time ordered by that court," he said. "Victims of these crimes want to be sure that justice will be served."
One of Mr. Strickland's proposed reforms would restore up to seven days a month that inmates could shave off their sentences by participating in educational, vocational, employment, substance-abuse, and other prison programming. A Senate bill would set the figure at five days a month.
Senate Bill 2 had slashed that number to one day a month while also eliminating so-called "good time" through which inmates could shorten their sentences by simply behaving while behind bars.
Mr. Collins laments the loss of "good time" as a tool, but said he is not advocating its return. Critics had complained that good time had been handed out to inmates just for breathing.
The earned-time program would target low-level, nonviolent felons. Sexually oriented offenders could not participate. Of 15,058 inmates serving a year or less in the state prisons in 2008, 36 percent were convicted for drug-related offenses and 32 percent for property offenses.
The governor's plan would also:
•Invest more money in electronic monitoring, day reporting, work-release, drug treatment, and other alternative community programs under Mr. Collins' supervision to which nonviolent inmates could be diverted.
•Focus more on alternative sentencing for all but the worst child-support scofflaws.
•Raise the felony theft threshold that triggers tougher penalties from $500 to $750.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the state should not do anything to undermine truth in sentencing, particularly when it comes to restoration of earned time.
"It's a public safety issue, in our opinion," he said. "They closed two prisons in the last several years that held 3,400 beds, and now they're complaining that they're overcrowded. Public safety is the first responsibility of state government, even if that means they have to build sufficient prison space to accommodate prisoners."
Faced with what has seemingly become a series of budget crises in Columbus every few years, Ohio shut down the Orient Correctional Institution south of Columbus in 2002.
At the time, the state prison system was operating about 13 percent over capacity.
Two years later, facing another round of budget cuts and operating 23 percent over capacity, the system shuttered the Lima Correctional Institution.
Despite the urgency expressed by Mr. Collins and Mr. Strickland, the sentencing reforms have at least temporarily been placed on the back burner.
Threatened layoffs of prison employees were postponed earlier this year thanks to emergency funds received through the federal stimulus package.
Shortly before sending their version of the $55 billion budget to the Republican-controlled Senate, House Democrats stripped out the sentencing-reform portion.
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