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Published: Friday, 7/17/2009

Ohio legislators fail to address sentencing reform

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The director of Ohio's prison system has warned that lawmakers had to make a choice - either enact sensible sentencing reforms to reduce overcrowding or spend billions on new prisons.

Lawmakers left Columbus for the summer earlier this week without doing either.

"We can't keep doing what we've been doing," said Terry Collins, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. "We are operating at 132 percent of capacity. Some people may not get excited about that, but it's not just about keeping people in prison. It's about them coming out and living next to you and me."

Gov. Ted Strickland had been counting on saving tens of millions over the next two years by diverting more low-level, non-violent inmates into electronic monitoring, drug and alcohol treatment, work release, and other community-based programs.

Mr. Collins said he hopes lawmakers will return to the issue in the fall.

In the meantime, he doesn't expect to use his constitutional authority, with the approval of lawmakers and the governor, to release large numbers of inmates to ease overcrowding.

In June, 50,919 inmates on average were in Ohio's 32 prisons, which are designed to hold 38,665.

After stripping the proposed reforms from the budget, lawmakers failed to deliver on their promise to move them in a separate bill that would reach the governor's desk at the same time as the budget.

Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) sponsored a bill incorporating variations on the governor's proposals. It narrowly passed the Senate Judicial-Criminal Justice Committee, but failed to see a full Senate vote.

"The governor supports it," he said. "It has widespread support. The prosecutors are opposed primarily to one provision, earned time. I've been told that the Democrats were unwilling to pass it because they were afraid Republicans would use it against them saying it was Willie Horton, which it isn't."

Mr. Seitz was referring to the infamous ad that Republicans successfully used in the 1988 presidential election campaign to help George H.W. Bush defeat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts.

The ad depicted inmates passing through a turnstile out of a Massachusetts prison. It was inspired by Willie Horton, who committed murder while on a weekend prison furlough.

Mr. Seitz said having a conservative Republican like him championing the reform package should have provided political cover for Democrats.

Keary McCarthy, spokesman for House Democrats, said the chamber substituted a sentencing reform study in its version of the budget.

"This would have allowed us to approach the concept of sentencing reform in a more thoughtful, comprehensive, and responsible way," he said. "Unfortunately, funding for this study was not included in the final version of the operating budget."

The debate will continue, Mr. McCarthy said.

The most controversial of Mr. Strickland's proposed reforms was the restoration of up to seven days a month that low-level, nonviolent inmates could shave off their sentences by participating in educational, substance-abuse, and other prison programming.

Mr. Seitz's bill would set the figure at five days a month. Current law limits it to one.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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