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A Road to Reenter Society

New law will reduce prison costs, help ex-felons find work

By Marika Lee · July 13th, 2011 · News
A criminal sentencing reform bill approved last month is estimated to save Ohio taxpayers more than $46 million during the next four years, but some argue that it has a more important purpose.

Ohio House Bill No. 86 reduces penalties for many low-level nonviolent criminals in the state, reduces sentencing for inmates who exhibit good behavior and helps inmates find employment after being released.

State Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township) began working on the bill three years ago as a method to combat prison overcrowding. The bill passed in the Ohio House May 4 with an 85-9 vote, and the Senate approved the bill June 22 with a 30-3 vote.

Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law June 29.

As part of the measure, criminals who are charged with low-level offenses — such as nonviolent drug-related charges — will be sentenced to serve time in community-controlled treatment centers instead of prisons.

“We are coming up with new drug sentencing that focuses on treatment, not incarnation,” said Seitz, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, at a June senate meeting.

Low-level offenders can be sentenced to community control programs if they have no prior offenses and they were unarmed at the time of the incident, according to the bill. Proposals for community control centers will be organized by the commissioners and sheriff’s office in each county.

Also, some inmates will have a change to reduce their sentences by earning credit off their jail time by completing community-controlled programs, such as behavior modification, while in jail. To be eligible, inmates must be deemed as not posing a risk to the public, along with agreeing to complete any program the jail might assign.

These programs are mainly targeted for first-time offenders convicted of first-, second- or third-degree felonies. Inmates convicted of fourth- or fifth-degree felonies may apply if they are thought to be at risk of becoming second-time offenders. Second-time offenders can be considered for the programs after an assessment based on four factors: The community’s safety, the inmate’s likelihood to re-offend, the nature of the offense and the inmate’s likeliness to follow rules.

Many politicians and lawmakers believe that this part of the bill will decrease the prison population and cut costs for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), which operates the state’s network of prisons.

“We are going to save the state over $500 million by 2015,” Seitz says.

The bill is estimated to cut $46.3 million from prison costs and decrease the inmate population by about 7,000 people by 2015, according to the ODRC.

Nationally, more than one in every 100 U.S.

citizens is incarcerated in either jail or prison. That costs state governments about $50 billion annually, along with another $5 billion annually spent by the federal government, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Center on the States.

Seitz says he got the idea for the law after Hamilton County commissioners and Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. asked him for state money to build a new jail in Cincinnati because they were running out of room in the Hamilton County Justice Center.

Although the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office declined comment to CityBeat on whether the law will lessen overcrowding, Seitz is confident it will be effective.

“We are going to stop the prisons from being so overcrowded that the courts have to step in and order mass releases, like they did in California,” he says.

Another of the law’s provisions is the Certificate of Achievement and Employability program, which was added by the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), a nonprofit advocacy group.

“The idea is to create job opportunities for people with criminal records,” says Stephen JohnsonGrove, the OJPC’s deputy director for policy.

The center got involved because it lobbies for so-called “smart on crime” measures, which are policies based on improving the criminal justice system, making sentences more equitable and containing costs.

The certificate program is designed to help inmates after they’re released. Inmates can get the certificate by completing vocation programs for certain job fields, such as HVAC or drywalling, while in prison.

“Some jails currently have such programming, but not enough have high quality ones,” JohnsonGrove says.

Further, inmates must complete a behavior modification class and perform community services to receive the certificate.

“There are hundreds of jobs that require a license … most have regulations that you can’t have a felony,” JohnsonGrove says. “The certificate says that the company has to give the person individual consideration.”

The certificate includes a provision stating the person with a criminal record cannot sue the company for negligent hiring.

“The certificate creates access to a license and removes businesses’ fear of hiring,” JohnsonGrove says.

“The Certificate of Achievement and Employability program strikes the right balance between protecting the public, giving rehabilitated people a better chance at getting a job and removing barriers for employers that want to hire qualified candidates who have criminal records,” says David Singleton, the OJPC’s executive director.

Although the bill was a long time in the making, its passage marks a monumental change, supporters say.

“I believe that this is the most sweeping criminal justice bill we have passed in the last 16 years,” Seitz says.

The law truly was a bipartisan affair.

Seitz, a Republican, first started working on the bill with former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and it was supported and signed by Kasich, a Republican. The bill was jointly introduced in the House by Speaker Pro Tempore Louis Blessing (R-Colerain Township) and Minority Whip Tracy Maxwell Heard (D-Columbus).

JohnsonGrove says he wasn’t worried that Kasich wouldn’t sign the bill and was impressed by the governor’s comments at the signing ceremony.

“I get emotional about this because I think the passage of this bill and the changing of this law is going to result in the saving of many, many lives, maybe even thousands, before all is said and done,” Kasich said at the ceremony.

The law is expected to eventually save Ohio taxpayers about $500 million, but JohnsonGrove says he’s glad Kasich didn’t talk about the monetary benefits.

“What he talked about was the important part of letting people turn their lives around,” JohnsonGrove says, which he describes as its most far-reaching outcome.



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