Prisons’ high cost fuels search for alternatives

Ohio now spends about $2B annually on corrections.


On any given day, more than 50,000 men, women and teens sit in Ohio prisons at an average daily cost to taxpayers of $72.23 per prisoner.

State spending on corrections is approaching $2 billion a year.

It’s those costs — and an acknowledgment that a prison bed isn’t always the most efficient public safety solution — that is leading to a push for less expensive alternatives.

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Tucked into the new state budget bill are two key changes aimed at keeping low-level, non-violent offenders out of state prisons:

  • Targeting Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) was proposed by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction as a means for avoiding prison time for low-level felons. Mandatory in the state’s 10 most populous counties (it’s an option in others), the program provides grant money for drug treatment, electronic monitoring or other sanctions.
  • Prison caps. Currently, low-level offenders who violate their probation terms — even for minor violations, such as failing a drug test — can be sent to prison for their full sentence. This would cap the amount of prison time those offenders face at 180 days, providing the probationary infraction is also no worse than a low-level felony.

The changes are expected to help divert 2,000 offenders from state prisons each year, according to the corrections department, saving taxpayers an estimated $20 million over the two years. The final version was scaled back from the Kasich administration’s original plan.

Jenna Moll, deputy director of the criminal reform group Justice Action Network, said lower-level offenders who pose no threat to public safety shouldn’t be in prison.

“The research behind this is crystal clear,” said Moll, who argues that incarceration often turns lower-level criminals into higher-level criminals.

“You not only throw away the money that you spend on their daily incarceration,” she said, “but you also increase the risk to public safety.”

RELATED: ACLU to lawmakers: hold off on more crime bills, pleaseBipartisan approach 

Ohio is following several other states that have embraced similar criminal justice reforms, including Texas, Georgia, Utah and Louisiana.

When Louisiana limited prison time to 90 days for technical violations of probation or parole, the state saved $18 million the first year and saw no increase in new crimes by those offenders, Moll said. Texas was able to close prisons and cut corrections costs after diverting low-level offenders to non-prison sanctions, she said.

The cost of corrections in Ohio has skyrocketed, from $389 million three decades ago to $2 billion today. In fact, the cost has risen so much so fast that both political parties seem to be on the same page when it comes to finding solutions.

“The partisan line has largely disappeared as conservatives and liberals in the legislature have championed these reforms,” said Mike Brickner of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Daniel Dew, a criminal justice expert at the conservative Buckeye Institute, said Ohio needs evidence-based policies that are smart on crime.

“There is so much over-criminalization and it’s so harsh,” he said.

RELATED: Pregnant inmates have local jails scrambling to provide care

Each year, 20,000 people enter Ohio prisons, including 8,300 who face sentences of a year or less.

Brickner and Dew both say more needs to be done to address mass incarceration, drug addiction and related issues in the justice system.

But Brickner said TCAP — the new diversion program — is an imperfect solution because there aren’t enough slots available for local drug and alcohol treatment.

“I worry that the only place for them to be housed will be local jails, which are often not rehabilitative environments,” he said.

TCAP operated as a pilot program in four locations. It will provide $50 million in grant money to counties to pay for supervision services, electronic monitoring, drug testing and treatment, incarceration in jails or community facilities and other programs.

Exactly how much the counties will receive is still being worked out, according to DRC officials.

Lock ‘em up?

The American impulse to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” is being challenged on a number of fronts, including by budget hawks.

One in three American adults have a criminal record and the country now spends $80 billion a year on prisons and jails, according to Justice Action Network. To get an idea of how much that is, $80 billion is double the combined salary of every high school teacher in America.

A 55-page report published in 2016 by the Brennan Center for Justice concludes that of the 1.46 million state and federal prisoners, roughly 576,000, or 39 percent, are incarcerated “with little public safety rationale.”

Their release, the center concluded, would save nearly $20 billion a year.

Roughly 25 percent of prisoners, or 364,000 people, are low-level offenders who could be more effectively and efficiently sanctioned in the community, the report says. It also notes that 79 percent of current prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness and 40 percent suffer from both.

But pushing people out of prisons and onto probation has its costs as well. Nationwide, 4.65 million adults, or 1 in 53, were on probation, parole or some other supervision in 2015, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Pew Charitable Trusts reported in April that several states are reforming their probation systems to ease caseloads, allow offenders with good behavior off probation sooner, minimize punishment for minor violations of probation and other changes.

More reforms 

Also included in the state budget bill is a provision to expand “earned time” that inmates can have knocked off their sentence. Inmates who complete a GED, drug treatment, vocational or college certificate program are eligible to get out 90 days earlier or have 10 percent of their sentence wiped out, whichever is less. Felons convicted of violent offenses aren’t eligible.

Lawmakers also approved a tweak to a “certification of qualification for employment” program that helps ex-convicts obtain professional licenses for jobs.

Dew said many leave prison with good intentions, only to be stymied by a litany of barriers.

“They come out and can’t get a job, can’t find housing,” Dew said. “All these plans of doing the right thing go out the window.”

Even more reforms may be on Ohio’s horizon.

A panel of experts just finished in June the first comprehensive review of Ohio’s criminal laws since 1974. The group delivered a nearly 500-page report on suggested changes to make the laws more fair and clear and address issues of overly harsh punishments and over-criminalization.

And the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission in March issued 1 256-page report calling for changes in how bail is set for those awaiting trial.

Moll said states can’t afford to keep locking up people for non-violent crimes.

“Prisons are kind of an untamed beast,” she said. “If you don’t pay attention to them and you just assume that everything is working and you don’t focus on the problem, they’re going to grow and grow and grow and there is really no end in sight.”

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