Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ohio Senate Passes Landmark Criminal Sentencing Reform Bill

Columbus – The Ohio Senate took action today to approve a major overhaul of Ohio's criminal sentencing laws, representing the culmination of a bipartisan, bicameral effort to address the growing cost of prison incarceration and overcrowding.
"It's important for the legislature to continue passing strong laws that keep our communities safe, but we also need responsible policies that work to reduce Ohio’s prison population," said Senate President Tom Niehaus.  "Every dollar we spend on packing our prisons with non-violent offenders is a dollar less than we can spend on schools or health services.  We need to fix this problem before it drives our budget to another breaking point."

Originally built to house about 38,000 inmates, Ohio prisons now hold 51,000 inmates, and the system is projected to exceed capacity by 40 percent in the next four years.  To accommodate that growth, taxpayers will have to foot a bill of more than a half-billion dollars just to construct additional facilities.  This demand for new prisons threatens to take critical funding away from other priorities, such as schools and health services.  House Bill 86 offers Ohio's justice system the research-driven tools to reduce low-level, short-term inmate populations by redirecting non-violent criminals into treatment, job training, education and other rehabilitation programs.

The legislation builds on a similar effort that began during the last legislative session.  
  • First, it increases the threshold for felony theft to allow more low-level offenders to be placed in community correction programs, rather than behind state prison bars.
  • Second, it increases the number of days an inmate can have subtracted from his or her sentence for each month of completion of education courses, job training initiatives, substance abuse treatment efforts and other approved programs.  These earned credits would not apply to the system’s most violent or sexually-oriented offenders.  
  • Third, it gives the state parole authority more options in determining penalties for parolees who fail to report to their parole officers, rather than a mandatory return to prison.  
  • Fourth, the bill creates new sentencing alternatives for people who fail to pay child support, diverting them into structured programs that focus on securing employment, building behavioral and parenting skills and, most importantly, paying child support.  
  • Finally, it includes a broad set of reforms aimed at creating treatment options as an alternative to mandatory prison time.
"I'm grateful for the tireless work put into this bill by my colleagues and our Senate staff," added Senator Niehaus.  "This is the culmination of more than three years of legislative effort, and it's a great example of what can be accomplished by putting aside partisan differences for the good of Ohio."

The bill is estimated to save taxpayers $78 million annually on prison costs.  It now returns to the House for final approval before heading to Governor John Kasich to become law.