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Prison reform can’t happen in budget bill

While school-funding and health care have understandably dominated the debate thus far about House Bill 1, Governor Strickland’s $54.4 billion, two-year budget proposal, the bill also includes several reforms to Ohio’s rehabilitation and corrections system that deserve the Legislature’s full attention.

Ohio’s prison population is currently several thousand inmates over capacity, which has placed a significant strain on the state budget and impacted the safety of the men and women who work inside our correctional facilities.

Looking to alleviate this problem, the Governor is pushing a plan in HB 1 that would revise penalties for low-level crimes, increase the credit inmates can earn for participation in prison rehabilitation programs and expand community correction alternatives for non-violent offenders.

The Administration estimates that these changes will reduce the number of inmates in Ohio’s prisons by more than 6,700 over time and save the state $29 million annually.

Specifically, HB 1 would increase the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $750 in an effort to direct more low-level offenders to lower-cost community correction programs. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections says this would reduce the prison population by 300 beds and save the state $1.3 million per year

The Governor’s proposal would also increase from one to seven days the earned credit an inmate can accrue for each month of completion of education courses, job training initiatives, treatment for substance abuse and other DRC-approved programs. DRC estimates this policy would clear more than 2,000 beds and save nearly $9 million annually.

In addition, the bill creates new sentencing guidelines for parents who fail to pay child support, which the DRC estimates could open 527 beds and save more than $2.27 million a year.

In testimony before the Senate Civil Justice Committee, DRC Director Terry Collins said that nearly 800 people are incarcerated each year for failure to pay child support. HB 1 seeks to direct these offenders away from prison and into programs that focus on securing employment and building good behavioral and responsible parenting skills.

Finally, the Governor’s plan gives the Adult Parole Authority more flexibility in determining penalties for parolees who fail to report to their parole officers. DRC estimates that this could save nearly 600 beds and more than $2.5 million annually.

It is clear that something should be done to address the severe overcrowding in Ohio’s correctional facilities and ensure the stability of our prison system over the long-term, but I believe any changes to the law should be vetted outside of the budget process.

The Governor has proposed some reasonable ideas, but the issue is too important to the financial stability of our state, the safety of our corrections workers and the security of our communities to be considered in the same bill alongside education, health care and myriad other topics.

In February, State Senator Bill Seitz from Hamilton County introduced Senate Bill 22, legislation that almost mirrors the prison reform plan included in HB 1.

He also worked on the issue with the Governor, representatives from DRC and other interested parties during the 127th General Assembly.

At the very least, it provides an opportunity for more extensive discussion and debate on the topic.

On a related note, the Columbus Dispatch reported on April 7 that Terry Collins sent a letter recently to all DRC employees informing them that the agency would not have to follow through with a plan to cut 500 positions, after the state received millions of dollars in the federal stimulus package for prisons and reached an agreement with union employees on a new contract.

This is not only good news for the men and women who work in Ohio’s 30 state prisons and other areas of DRC, but also the security of our prisons and the safety of our local communities.

As the debate moves forward about the future of Ohio’s rehabilitation and corrections system, I will work to ensure that any changes to the law or the operation of our state’s prisons carefully balances the need to reduce Ohio’s inmate population and save taxpayer dollars with the importance of keeping our communities safe from dangerous criminals.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District.He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.