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Ohio Admits It Has a Problem With Mass Incarceration

Wayne County Jail in Wooster, Ohio
Wayne County Jail in Wooster, Ohio
Alison Holcomb,
Political Director,
ACLU of Washington
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September 11, 2015

The first step is always admitting you have a problem.

Yesterday in Columbus, Ohio, I saw lawmakers do just that, launching what could be the best chance to improve the state’s criminal justice system. Leaders from all sides of the political spectrum convened to celebrate the start of Ohio’s Recodification Committee, a group of judges, prison officials, criminal defense attorneys, mental health advocates, prosecutors, and others who will evaluate the entirety of Ohio’s entire criminal code and see what should be tightened up, revised, or eliminated. We don’t yet know what the result of this committee will be — they will provide recommendations to the full state legislature in the 2016 session — but we do know that this is an historic and potentially groundbreaking endeavor.

We also know that a majority of Ohioans and Americans are unhappy with our criminal justice systems. Our nation, founded in order to “secure the Blessings of Liberty,” is also the world’s leading incarcerator, both by raw numbers and percentages of population. No matter how you slice that reality, it’s an abject failure of our founders’ effort to prove that freedom is the most important precondition to maximizing the human potential and achieving greatness.

Ohio has the seventh largest population of people behind bars in the nation. Its incarceration rates beat Cuba, Rwanda, and the Russian Federation. That kind of leadership and company is hard to celebrate, but those numbers create an opportunity: One in four new prisoners in Ohio this year will be for a drug offense while half of the people in prison are there for the first time.

Our challenge, and the challenge for the committee launched yesterday, is clear: Can we do something different here? Can we change our system in such a way that it is not exclusively focused on these individuals’ acts but looking at the potential to prevent first-time and repeat offenses through families, neighborhoods, communities, and government programs focused on solutions?

Nationwide, voters believe by a two-to-one margin that reducing the prison population will make us safer if we invest in crime prevention and rehabilitation efforts. Eighty seven percent agree that drug addicts and the mentally ill shouldn’t be in prison but rather in treatment facilities. We’ve seen that reform efforts can work: Behavioral therapy, intensive treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and preventive programs, like the Nurse-Family Partnership, can deliver the crime reduction we all want without destroying lives and families. We can invest in better options here in Ohio and make it explicit in the criminal code that solutions are favored over incarceration and by rewarding the law enforcement and other service providers who focus on non-jail alternatives effectively in our communities.

There’s clear momentum for criminal justice reform, and the ACLU is leading the efforts to make change in states and on the federal level. I’m proud to have joined some nonconventional allies in Columbus yesterday supporting the Buckeye State’s effort to create a justice system that reflects our hope in the future and not just our fears. But today begins the actual work through which lawmakers, judges, and advocates take a hard look at past successes and challenges to build a better Ohio that is more just.

Reform is on the way and the momentum to shift our justice system is turning to action. The real work here will begin when Ohio’s legislature hopefully implements meaningful change. And our work here at ACLU continues as we try to spur others to take action. They say that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation; here’s to hoping that as a nation we can begin the process to change our justice system.

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