When Gary Mohr began his career at the Marion Correctional Institution in 1974, there were 8,516 inmates in state prisons. Forty years later, he manages a system nearly six times as large, packed with 50,639 offenders.
One of every 175 adult Ohioans is housed, fed and receives medical care at taxpayer expense in a state prison. The latest two-year budget allocated $3.14 billion for the prison system.
Ohio officials have been unable to consistently tamp down the prison population despite attempts to do so. Major sentencing reforms were enacted, “good time” was reintroduced, community programs were enhanced, and early-release provisions were added.
And still the numbers go up. The latest projections suggest the inmate population in 27 prisons (including two private facilities) will hit 52,000 in two years, and 53,484 in five. Prisons already are bulging with 30-percent more prisoners than they were designed to hold.
“I’m getting a lot of people saying, ‘When are you going to build another prison?’??” Mohr said in an interview. “I’m a believer in people instead of bricks and mortar. I’m not going to build another prison.”
The major reason is the enormous cost, Mohr said.
“That’s a commitment of $1 billion for two decades. It would cost $120 million to $150 million to build and $40?million annually to operate.”
Mohr, prisons director since early 2011, said he remains optimistic the state can get prison population growth under control. Still, he was forced recently to seek more money in the revised state budget to hire 80 parole officers and support staff members, plus 91 guards spread over three prisons.
The series of reforms that began with House Bill 86 in 2011 got traction in Ohio’s six largest counties, including Franklin, which reduced the number of offenders being sent to state prisons in the past year. That helped reduce the prison population by about 675. However, the number of inmates being sent to prison from the remaining 82 counties increased, helping push up the population by 11.1 percent from 2003 to 2013.
Here’s the math behind the numbers: Each prisoner costs Ohio taxpayers $22,836 per year, so adding 100 prisoners, for example, costs nearly $2.3 million.
A report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative corrections watchdog, last August listed five contributing reasons why the prison population has gone up: a very small increase in violent crime, longer sentences for higher-level felonies, dramatically fewer prison releases (a 24.3 percent drop in five years), legislation increasing penalties for specific crimes, and adverse court decisions.
Another factor may trump all the others: a flood of heroin cases. Men coming into prison still outnumber women more than 4 to 1, but that gap is shrinking as more women are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who has been instrumental in recent prison-reform legislation, says the changes included in House Bill 86 are indeed working, “just not as fast as we had hoped. They’ve certainly ameliorated the situation as opposed to doing nothing.
“We didn’t expect a dramatic overnight reduction,” Seitz said. “It takes awhile for the full import of these comprehensive reforms to float down the system.”
Seitz said many judges opposed the reforms because they limited judicial discretion in sentencing. As a result, “some judges are finding creative ways of sidestepping the provision that requires them not to send to prison first-time Felony 4 and Felony 5 non-violent drug and property offenders.”
Mark Schweikert, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, disagrees with Seitz.
“He’s disappointed in the impact those reforms have had. I don’t think judges are dragging their feet. I think judges are following the law.
“I understand Bill’s frustration, but there’s no intention from judges to fill the prison,” Schweikert said. “There’s no intention to resist the will of the General Assembly.”
The prison-crowding issue is an everyday dilemma for corrections officers represented by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.
“We were told sentencing reform would flatten out staffing levels, but we keep keeping more people (hired) on the administrative staff and those who work 9 to 5,” said the union’s president, Christopher Mabe. “We know there’s going to be more inmates coming into the system, and that means we need more staff.”
The inmate-to-guard ratio, now about 7.4-to-1, has risen because of the increase in the prison population, coupled with decreases in the number of front-line officers. Serious violent assaults on officers rose to a seven-year high as a result of overcrowding and the staffing shortage.
Ohio is not alone in having so many of its citizens locked up. The National Research Council issued a report last week saying incarceration in state and federal prisons rose from 200,000 in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2009. There are 2.2 million adults in U.S. prisons and jails — about 1 in 100 adults — more than in any other country. The U.S. has roughly 25 percent of the world’s inmates, but just 5 percent of the population.
By Alan Johnson - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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