From: Cleveland.com Plain Dealer:
By Joe Guillen, The Plain Dealer, 27th June 2011
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nonviolent felons will be sent to rehabilitation facilities instead of prison, and some inmates will be released sooner under an overhaul of Ohio’s criminal sentencing laws aimed at easing prison overcrowding and saving the state money.
Republican Gov. John Kasich will sign the massive bill this week. The dramatic changes drew strong bipartisan support — a rarity so far this year — in both the House of Representatives and Senate, which approved the legislation last week.
“These proposals will begin to address the problem of low-level offenders cycling through the prison system while reserving scarce and expensive state prison beds for violent and predatory offenders,” Gary Mohr, director of Ohio’s prisons system, testified before a Senate committee last month.
Critics, however, said the bill is soft on crime, a short-sighted fix to help deal with the state’s budget crisis. Others worry that communities do not have the resources to house offenders sent to halfway houses and other diversion programs instead of prison.
Undisputed is the need to ease prison overcrowding. Ohio’s prison population this month is 50,561, significantly above the corrections system’s capacity of 38,389.
The criminal sentencing reform package is designed to reduce the prison population by keeping low-level offenders out of prison — placing them instead in halfway houses or community-based correction facilities — and creating new pathways for certain inmates to shorten their sentences.
The reforms also eliminate disparities in punishments for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses while making it easier for former prisoners to find jobs.
The changes are expected to save the state more than $46 million over the next four years, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Sen. Shirley Smith, a Cleveland Democrat, said the goal is to reduce recidivism, cut back on spending and change the behavior of those who break the law.
“We are not just dealing with the state’s pocketbook,” Smith said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “We are dealing with real people, real problems and their futures.”
Details of the bill
• Generally requires judges to sentence nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders to alternative facilities, such as community-based correctional facilities and halfway houses, rather than prison.
• Allows the release of nonviolent felons who did not commit a sexually oriented offense if they have served more than 80 percent of a prison term of one year or more. First- and second- degree felons released under this provision would be put on parole and monitored with a GPS device.
• Increases the threshold — from $500 to $1,000 — for theft offenses to be considered a felony.
• Provides an alternative to prison for felony offenses for not paying child or spousal support.
• Eliminates the distinction between criminal penalties for drug offenses related to crack cocaine and powder cocaine. New punishments for cocaine offenses reflect a middle ground between the two current penalties.
• Expands an earned credit system in which inmates can shave days off their sentences. Certain prisoners could earn up to five days of credit per month for completing education and rehabilitation programs. The old system permitted only one day of credit per month. Sex offenders and violent felons would not be able to shorten their terms, and no prisoner could reduce a sentence by more than 8 percent.
• Requires the state’s prisons system to review the cases of inmates who are 65 or older and eligible for parole — paving the way for a new parole hearing and possible release.