Shortsighted public policy with prisons

In the past month, the Ohio Senate approved various measurers that will increase penalties and prison time for a variety of crimes ranging from soliciting sex from minors, cocaine related offenses and inducing panic at a school. Tough-on-crime legislation is about the only no-lose issue for politicians. Nobody favors coddling lawbreakers. Other, critical issues, may and almost certainly do, languish, but measures such as those listed above are always fast-tracked.
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 25, 2010

In the past month, the Ohio Senate approved various measurers that will increase penalties and prison time for a variety of crimes ranging from soliciting sex from minors, cocaine related offenses and inducing panic at a school.

Tough-on-crime legislation is about the only no-lose issue for politicians. Nobody favors coddling lawbreakers. Other, critical issues, may and almost certainly do, languish, but measures such as those listed above are always fast-tracked.

It was about two decades ago that the federal government and most states began really cracking down with crime bills like mandatory sentences for drug crimes, three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation, etc. And while crime went down in most cases, it was not without significant costs.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio has spent $800 million building 23 prisons since 1987.

Despite this massive investment in prisons — coming at time when schools in the state don’t have money to keep teachers employed and roads like 250 in Milan are literally falling apart and there’s no money to fix it — Ohio’s prison population is now in excess of 50,000, which is 133 percent of capacity.

Other states have found themselves in the same situation and many are addressing it by revisiting some of that legislation passed in the last decade, often reducing or even eliminating prison time for non-violent offenders — particularly drug possession offenders.

These states have decided that their residents have more pressing needs in terms of education, health care and infrastructure that have for too long been neglected to squander their limited resources building more prisons to house people who are likely not a danger to society.

Ohio should do the same.

We’re not saying those who solicit sex from minors don’t deserve punishment — they do. They are a danger to the community and should be put away, but the Senate needs to also be taking a second look at some of the stiff penalties that are being meted out for lesser, often victimless, crimes because they are unsustainable.

Since January, the Dispatch reports, Ohio lawmakers have introduced at least 42 bills that increase criminal penalties, expand penalties to new offenses, mandate prison time or create new crimes.

In a state with a shaky economy like Ohio’s, this is nothing short of madness.  It costs Ohioans $25,000 a year to house a prison inmate. Can we afford to be exponentially increasing our prison population? Of course not.

Forty-two bills increasing prison sentencing at a time when our prisons are already over-crowded without alternative sentencing for lower-level felons, may be popular, but is shortsighted public policy.

Citizens need to feel safe in their homes from criminals, that’s for sure. But they also should be reasonable confident that the roadway on which they are driving is not going to collapse out from under them. Our elected representatives need to seek balance in addressing our needs.