Reducing prison population is inevitable, but at what cost?

The entire population of the city of Warren could be put in Ohio’s prisons, and there would still be room for everyone living in the city of Canfield and the village of Poland.

That provides a rough idea of how many people the state of Ohio is incarcerating these days — just about 51,000.

And if nothing is done, that number is estimated to grow by about 10 percent over the next five years.

Ohio’s prisons are overcrowded by about a third of their design capacity and the $1.6 billion annual bill is an heavy burden on taxpayers.

The Ohio House has already passed a sentencing overhaul bill by a lopsided and bipartisan vote of 95-2. House Bill 86 is in the Senate judiciary committee, as is a similar bill that originated in the Senate.

In essence, the bill will save tens of billions of dollars by diverting non-violent offenders to community programs and giving inmates time off their sentences for participating in treatment and training programs.

We’re going to acknowledge that over the years we’ve written our share of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” editorials. But times change, and a state is limited by the cells it has to lock, the guards it has to turn the keys and the money it has to pay for both.

The time has come to look for some new and better ways of responding to nonviolent criminal behavior, which is not to say criminals of any ilk should get off scot-free.

Finding alternatives to state imprisonment or ways of shortening prison time, especially for first time offenders, could even reduce recidivism.

The rub, of course, is that nothing is as easy or simple as it seems. There will always be costs associated with criminal prosecution. In Ohio, who pays those costs is determined by the severity of the offense and the method of incarceration.

A felon sentenced to a long term in a state penitentiary is the state’s financial responsibility; a misdemeanant sent to county jail is a burden on local taxpayers.

Savings and costs

The Ohio Legislative Service Commission’s fiscal impact statement of HB 86 notes that over the first four years after the bill’s passage, the number of inmate beds in the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s prison system will be reduced by more than 2,000, which would be a savings of between $90 million and $100 million. However, some of those savings would be offset by higher costs for parole and community service operations.

The OLSC’s analysis also notes that “presumably, counties and municipalities will also incur additional jail costs to sanction these offenders who would not be sentenced to a prison term.”

It is surprising that local officials — especially county sheriffs and the county commissioners who must fund the sheriff’s department — have not been more vocal about the effect that shifting incarceration costs from the state to the counties would have on their ability to balance their budgets. The OLSC states, “the additional cost that counties and municipalities will incur, in particular the costs to sanction offenders diverted from prison and into community control sanctions, will in all likelihood be offset to some degree by additional state community corrections subsidies distributed by DRC.” We see no fewer than three qualifying phrases in that sentence that should act as red flags for any county or municipality that thinks statewide sentencing reform is going to be painless for local government.

That is not to say that this is a bad bill — obviously the vast majority of state representatives think it is a good bill. But local officials should be asking those state representatives if sentencing reform — which covers both adult and juvenile offenders — will have the effect of imposing an unfunded mandate on local taxpayers.

And given that this bill is on a relatively fast track, it is not too soon for local officials to be looking for ways of minimizing the effects of the bill on county, municipal and juvenile courts, their probation departments and county jails.

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