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Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights Spetember 13, 2013

Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
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September 13, 2013

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

Ohio’s Very Short-Lived Progress toward Reducing Its Severe Prison Overcrowding

In September 2011, Ohio state prisons were holding 50,300 prisoners even though they were only built to hold 38,200. To address that problem, Ohio passed a bill (HB 86; see summary for bill provisions) to reduce its prison population. The bill had promise: “Sentencing-overhaul law to reduce Ohio’s prison population,” proclaimed the Columbus Dispatch. When the state’s prison population dropped to below 49,500 last September, it reached its lowest level in five years. Things appeared to be going as planned.

Two years later, the outlook is less optimistic. Ohio’s prison population has climbed back to the same level it stood at when the bill took effect, and the state faces precisely the same severe overcrowding problem today as it did then. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) expects the situation to only get worse; in an updated forecast published last November, the DRC projected a continued increase over the next eight years.

Why did things turn out this way? The short answer is that the bill’s provisions haven’t had the impact that lawmakers expected because its provisions aren’t being fully utilized.

For example, fewer defendants have been diverted from prison than had been projected. When HB 86 was passed, people convicted of a felony in the lowest two classes (4 and 5) with no prior felony convictions comprised about 7% of all new prison admissions (see p. 8 here). The bill prohibited judges from sentencing such defendants to prison except in certain circumstances (such as possessing a firearm), or unless the judge asks the DRC to recommend a sanction and the department recommends prison.

It worked at first—the percentage of new prisoners convicted of a first-time low-level felony dropped to 5% by the end of 2012—but it’s been climbing all year, and is back up to 6 percent. That’s true of low-level felonies generally; F4 and F5 convictions comprise a greater share of admissions today than they did in late 2011. And that’s because there are more low-level felony admissions since September 2011, not because the total pie is shrinking; total prison admissions are as high as they were when HB 86 was passed.

Also to blame is the underutilization of the risk-reduction (RR) sentencing provision. Ohio’s truth-in-sentencing law requires prisoners to serve the full sentence except in rare circumstances, but HB 86 allowed judges to issue sentences that allowed prisoners to be released under supervision after serving 80% of the term, if the defendant met certain criteria. When HB 86 was passed, the legislature estimated that 35% of prisoners sentenced to 9 months or less would receive a RR sentence; in practice, only 2 percent of eligible defendants received such a sentence this year.

The bill’s failures are not the only reason Ohio hasn’t succeeded in decreasing its prison population. Some of the blame goes to a decade of increasing sentence lengths coming home to roost. But HB 86 could have had a greater impact on admissions if judges more fully utilized the bill, as a state supreme court justice recently observed. DRC Director Mohr has proposed “working with judges to find ways to reduce prison commitments and with lawmakers to re-examine penalties for less serious crimes,” and hopefully he follows through.

Other Interesting Items from the Past Week

  • California lawmakers passed a bill to address the standing court order to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prison system. The bill is a compromise with the governor’s plan to contract with private prison companies to expand capacity—if the federal court approves an extension of its deadline for California to reduce overcrowding levels to 137.5%, then the state will fund programs to reduce recidivism and wait for the problem to solve itself. If the court approves no such extension, then the bill approves over $300 million annually to pay private prisons to house over 7,000 prisoners.

Want to know how addicted your state is to incarceration? Check out our state legislation map for updates on recent activity in state legislatures to reduce prison populations, with contextual information about each state.

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