Ohio's legislature has not been the friendliest place for civil libertarians this year. Bills under consideration include the most restrictive photo identification requirements for voters, privatizing six of the state's prisons and some of the nation's most aggressive attacks on reproductive freedom.
However, there is one notable bright spot in Ohio's legislative session: the passage of criminal sentencing reform. The ACLU of Ohio has been on the front lines advocating for sensible sentencing reform that would alleviate the state's overcrowded prison system. After two decades of unfair sentencing laws sending more low-level, nonviolent offenders to prison, the state's prison system is at 133 percent capacity with a growing class of ex-felons who are unable to gain access to employment, education and housing.
In August 2010, the ACLU of Ohio released "Reform Cannot Wait," an in-depth examination of research from the last two decades that illustrate how overincarceration in Ohio has led to higher costs to taxpayers, reduced safety and perpetuated racial disparities.
The criminal justice reform legislation, House Bill 86, was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support last week and promises to begin to reverse the years of damage "tough on crime" policies have wreaked on Ohio's criminal justice system and communities. The reforms will:
- Provide alternatives to incarceration for first time nonviolent, low-level offenders;
- Increase the amount of credit prisoners can earn off their sentence for participating in educational and rehabilitative programs;
- Correct the state's crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity; and
- Standardize the state's probation and parole systems.
Passage of H.B. 86 also marked an important victory for juvenile justice advocates. Leaders in the House of Representatives amended the bill to include provisions that will give judges more discretion to determine which youth should be prosecuted as adults and expand nonincarceration options for youth.
The bill is an important win for the ACLU's Safe and Fair Campaign to end overincarceration nationally. We hope other states will follow this important first step and begin to reduce their reliance on overincarceration while saving on their corrections budgets, protecting public safety and increasing fairness in a system that has long lacked equity.
The bill, passed nearly unanimously by legislators, will be signed by Gov. John Kasich today. The ACLU of Ohio, which played a key role in the reforms, will attend the signing.