ACLU: Ohio prisons in crisis

Senators of both parties agree that system is costly, overcrowded

Wednesday, August 18, 2010  02:52 AM

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

The American Civil Liberties Union and state Sens. Nina Turner, a Cleveland Democrat, and Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, are at odds on many issues.

But the unlikely trio joined forces yesterday to pitch enactment of reforms to heal Ohio’s “overcrowded, overused and underfunded” prison system.

“We are at a crisis in the state of Ohio,” said James Hardiman, Ohio ACLU legal director, in releasing “Reform Cannot Wait,” a report examining the cost and impact of prison incarceration and spending from 1991 to the present.

The report summarized the findings of other reports over nearly two decades and reached the same conclusions: Ohio sends far too many people to prison, spends an inordinate amount of money on adult and youth prisons, and has done little to reduce crime and recidivism.

It costs taxpayers $66.31 per day to house each adult offender and $330.33 per day for each juvenile offender. Community sanctions, treatment and probation cost a fraction of those amounts.

Seitz said the state’s 1996 “truth-in-sentencing” law failed miserably, largely because lawmakers added dozens of tough-on-crime sentence “enhancements” that increased the overall average time served instead of reducing it as intended.

“We created layer after layer of additional sentences,” he said.

Seitz is the sponsor of Senate Bill 22, which would funnel some low-level, nonviolent offenders to community treatment programs and give offenders time off their sentences for successfully participating in education and treatment programs behind bars. It would initially save about $13.7 million in operating costs, but it would help avoid billions in spending if it prevents the state from having to build new prisons because of severe overcrowding, he said.

Seitz said his bill, which has been voted out of a Senate committee, “will not undercut the holy grail of determinant sentencing,” as prosecutors claim.

Turner said, “As a General Assembly, we have to have the courage to pass this bill.” She cited the disproportionate numbers of blacks who are incarcerated compared with whites.

John Murphy, head of the Ohio Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, was out of town and could not be reached for comment on the report and legislation.

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