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Ohio's approach to crime produces large prison population

By Tom Jackson • Apr 22, 2019 at 12:51 PM

Ohio still has a “tough on crime” approach to prisons, and recent legislation by the Ohio General Assembly seems likely to swell the state’s prison population further.

That’s the assessment of Gary Daniels, an Ohio ACLU lobbyist who closely tracks developments in the Ohio Legislature.

Daniels said the Ohio General Assembly does have a significant sentencing reform bill in the current session. Senate Bill 3, by Sen. John Eklung, R-Munson Township, and Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, seeks to direct more people caught possessing drugs into treatment rather than prison.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction issues monthly fact sheets on Ohio’s prison population.

The April 2019 fact sheet shows a total prison population in March of 48,872, including 44,917 men and 3,955 women. The prison population was 25,281 white, 22,051 black and 1,504 “other.”     

The state prison population has hovered around 49,000 for years, Daniels said. The prison system actually was built to hold 37,000 to 38,000 people, he said.

The ACLU has set a target of reducing the prison population by 10,000, Daniels said.

“We don’t think this should be any kind of bold or controversial thinking,” Daniels said. “That would still be above capacity.”

Daniels said he believes the state’s prison population is likely to rise in the next two to three years.

Lawmakers approved a bill to increase penalties for fentanyl-related drug crimes, and also passed the Reagan Tokes Act, which allows judges to sentence convicted people  to a range of years, rather than a specific term. Both new laws will add to the size of the prison population, Daniels predicted.

Prison sentencing reform has become a hot national topic.  

Last December, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, a law which was approved with bipartisan support. The measure allows thousands of people to earn earlier release from prison and also may cut the length of future prison sentences.

There is no equivalent comprehensive effort in Ohio, but the ACLU supports Senate Bill 3, the Eklund-O’Brien bill, Daniels said.

The bill would make possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor rather than a felony, except for fentanyl and drugs used to commit rape. It would also presume that offenders should receive treatment as opposed to jail. Finally, it would make it easier for people convicted of relatively minor drug offenses to have those records sealed, making it easier for them to get jobs and housing.

The bill is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Eklund is the chairman of the committee.

Eklund said he plans to seek testimony on the bill over the next couple of weeks and then hold hearings on it.

He said he’s optimistic the bill will be approved and be signed into law, but said it’s still early in the process. Few bills go through the Ohio General Assembly without being changed, he said.

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