The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) is on the verge of a dubious milestone. Despite the DRC’s efforts and resources, Director Gary Mohr said at a statewide conference in May, “I think it’s a pretty safe bet that by July 1 of this year, we will set an all-time historic record of incarcerated Ohioans.”
In 2011, Ohio enacted comprehensive criminal justice reforms focused on sentencing and corrections. The reforms, under the umbrella of the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), were intended to reduce the state prison population and use the savings to support law enforcement and public safety initiatives.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the reforms were projected to save taxpayers $46 million by 2015. When the reforms were announced, Gov. John Kasich, who spent over 200 days out of state running for president in 2015-2016, said, “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.”
Ohio’s prison population increased 16 percent between 2005 and 2008, rising from 44,270 inmates to a record 51,273, driving prison overcrowding and spending growth, according to the Pew Trusts. By 2011, state prisons were 33 percent overcapacity. Absent reform, a projected influx of 3,000 inmates by 2015 would have required approximately $500 million in additional state spending.
Justice Reinvestment was supposed to reverse the soaring prison population and provide relief from the enormous cost of incarceration.
JRIs have been enacted in 27 states. JRI’s data-driven approach to improve public safety includes examining corrections and related criminal- justice spending; managing and allocating criminal justice populations in a more cost- effective manner; and reinvest ing savings in strategies that can hold offenders accountable and decrease crime.
The Policy Review found “significant costs savings have yet to materialize for JRI programs as a whole. States with Justice Reinvestment “were slightly less likely to reduce annual costs as compared to non-justice reinvestment states.”
The Policy Review found that from 2006-2013 justice reinvestment states were only .125 times more likely to reduce prison expenditures than increase expenditures while non-justice reinvestment states were .136 times as likely to reduce expenditures.
JRI is failing in Ohio. In October 2012, contrary to the projections of JRI, Ohio’s prison population began to increase. The DRC and some stakeholders speculated that implementation challenges were greater than anticipated, especially with regard to educating judges on the JRI reforms, according to the Council of State Governments. In November 2012, the DRC revised JRI projections indicating a smaller impact on the prison population than originally projected.
As of today, JRI’s impact on Ohio’s prison population is nil. The Legislature and governor’s response – fire the prison watchdog. As things began to look more and more bleak, Joanna Saul, executive director of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, was forced to resign.
The inspection committee, established in 1977, to provide a legislative check and balance on the prison department mainly fielded complaints from inmates and their families. Saul expanded those responsibilities, and that roiled legislators.
Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, voted against changes in the inspection committee, “We need that kind of independent watchdog who is going to be able to withstand political pressure,” Phillips told the Dispatch. “It keeps an eye on how a great deal of tax money is being spent. It is important for the safety of the staff, the inmates and the general public.”
Without an independent watchdog and JRI’s ineffectiveness, prison costs will continue to climb at the peril of education, infrastructure and taxpayer’s pocketbooks.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino