Ohio committee begins work to revise criminal code, lessen prison population
By Marc Kovac
A new state panel began work Thursday on what legislative leaders believe will be a major overhaul of Ohio’s criminal code.
A goal is to give judges more discretion in sentencing, sending certain nonviolent or drug offenders to treatment and community control instead of prison.
“The bottom line is simple: It’s time for us to update our criminal justice system,” said Republican Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina. “Our prisons are overcrowded. In fact, they’re at 139 percent capacity here in Ohio, and nonviolent, low-level offenders, particularly drug offenders, are too often incarcerated with little or no rehabilitation to help them break the cycle of crime.”
The Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, expanded by lawmakers as part of the biennial state budget earlier this year, is required to provide recommendations for criminal code reforms by next August. Any law changes would have to then be approved by the Ohio House and Senate.
Several years ago, state lawmakers passed and Gov. John Kasich signed into law a prison-sentencing reform package that also sought to place more nonviolent offenders into community- control programs. Faber said the new committee effort will take a broader approach to the issue, considering the criminal code as a whole.
“Let me be clear: We will prosecute and punish serious violent offenders to the fullest extent of the law,” Faber said. “Ohioans expect no less. No one is here today to say criminals should not be punished. We’re here today to say that not all crimes or all criminals are equal, and we need to provide the prosecutorial, the judicial and the penal flexibility to make our system work more effectively.”
The new effort has the support of Republicans and Democrats and leaders from two national groups that generally are positioned on opposite sides of issues.
“The current levels of incarceration also aren’t making our communities any safer. There is dissonance between where we are now and our shared commitment to elevating, expanding and cherishing freedom,” said Alison Holcomb, director of the Campaign for Smart Justice, American Civil Liberties Union.
Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, added, “Across the country, here in Ohio... there’s been real movement with Republicans and Democrats coming together, liberals and conservatives saying that on this issue, criminal justice reform and the various aspects of it, from asset forfeiture to over-criminalization to mandatory minimums to re-entry and how people are treated in prison, there’s a great deal of agreement, right and left, and actual legislation passing.”