By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS
AP Legal Affairs Writer
A law that has helped Ohio reduce its inmate population is being criticized as too restrictive by judges seeking more leeway in sentencing.
Enacted a year ago this Sunday, the law aims to save the state millions of dollars by shrinking the number of inmates and also by reducing the number of offenders who might to return to prison as repeat offenders.
One result of the change is that Ohio’s inmate population has remained under 50,000 since January, levels not seen since 2007.
Ohio is also one of several states making significant progress reducing the number of repeat offenders, according to a national report released last week.
Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Vermont all saw the number of repeat offenders drop between 2005 and 2007, according to the study by Washington-based Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.
One way Ohio has lowered its inmate population over the past year is by prohibiting judges from sentencing first-time offenders to prison if the cases fall into certain categories, such as convictions involving low-level felonies or if the crime was not a violent offense.
But judges aren’t always happy about that. In some cases, they can’t find local treatment facilities or aren’t aware of them, or they say the offender has a history of skipping out of halfway houses or similar settings. In other cases, judges make it clear they think prison is warranted, despite the law.
Twenty-two judges have asked the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for help finding spots for inmates who would have gone to prison under the old law, according to data obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.
In 10 other cases, the state permitted inmates to serve prison time, while finding local alternatives for nine other inmates. Two cases are pending.
The issue came to a head last week in Washington County at the sentencing for a man who pleaded guilty last month to a fourth-degree felony of unlawful sexual conduct with a 14-year-old boy.
During the Sept. 18 hearing, Judge Susan Boyer expressed her dissatisfaction with the law and warned the offender, Nicholas Leach, he would be sent to prison if he violated any of the conditions she was imposing. She sentenced him to 90 days in jail and 90 days in a secure treatment center.
“At this point, the court does not have available to it the option to send you to prison,” Boyer said. “Let me be clear: If the court had that option, you would be going to prison.”
Assistant Washington County prosecutor Kevin Rings said it was the first time in his career he’d seen a sex offender escape prison.
“You had a 24-year-old defendant and a 14-year-old child,” he said. “In Washington County, that’s prison.”
Messages were left for Leach’s attorney seeking comment.
The prison system is working with the Ohio Judicial Conference on possible updates to the law that would exclude sex offenders from the prohibition on prison.
Thanks to the law, the number of offenders convicted of property, drug possession and drug trafficking crimes decreased from 37 percent of total admissions to 29 percent of admissions, according to prison records.
In addition, the number of offenders admitted each month for failing to pay child support has dropped from 39 per month in 2011 to 31 per month from January through August, records show.
Prisons director Gary Mohr called the first-year results promising but said much remains to be done.