Columbus – With prison populations at more than 130 percent of capacity during a budget crisis, state leaders are turning to a nonprofit group to generate solutions.
“The budget crisis, for me, is the biggest thing,” said sate Rep. Mike Moran, D-Hudson. “Are we using taxpayer dollars most effectively?”
The state has contracted with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to collect data on the criminal justice system, then develop possible solutions specifically tailored for the state.
Gov. Ted Strickland, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and state House and Senate leaders announced the effort last week.
Moran and state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, will chair a work group that will guide the CSG effort.
Though Ohio’s prison population declined from 1998 to 2004, it climbed 14 percent from 2005 to an all-time high of 41,273 in 2008. It dropped slightly in 2009.
“My mother always told me you can’t put 10 pounds in a five-pound bag, and that is what we’re doing,” Seitz said.
If existing policies remain unchanged, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction predicts, the prison population will rise 11 percent in the next decade.
Increasing system capacity to accommodate that increase will cost $925 million, including $424 million in construction costs and $501 million in additional operating costs, the DRC estimates.
“As you know, we do not have it,” Seitz said. “The state does not have that kind of money.”
The first step will be collecting good data. Some of it is already readily accessible, such as at the DRC. But the CGS will need to analyze what’s happening at the local level, which could take longer, Moran said.
“What we want to do is make sure this is data-driven,” Moran said.
Hopefully, data collection will be finished by spring, so the CGS can start the analysis and develop policy choices, Moran said.
But Seitz said that while he is supportive of the effort, he does not want it used as an excuse to delay passage of Senate Bill 22, which he introduced to make prison reform.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the bill would offer good-behavior incentives to prisoners, add resources for diversion programs for nonviolent offenders and expand options to punish parole violations.
Ohio is the 10th state that has contracted with the CGS to develop corrections policy alternatives.
Based on the outcomes in the other nine, Seitz said he expects the policy recommendations to mirror the senate bill, but hopes the CGS finds more ideas that will cut costs while ensuring public safety.
“I don’t want the study to be an excuse for inaction,” Seitz said. “We spend a lot of money on probation and the question is: are we spending it effectively?”