Thinning the prison herd
“We stick them in prison next to a murderer and a rapist. That’s really made a lot of sense here in Ohio to be doing that, didn’t it?”
— Governor John Kasich
“House Bill 86 represents a positive step forward, but our broken criminal justice system demands fast, fundamental changes to thin our bloated prisons.”
— James L. Hardiman, Legal Director ACLU of Ohio
It’s not often that a Republican Governor and an ACLU legal director are in agreement on something. It’s even rarer if that agreement is over a criminal justice reform bill. Such are the strange times in which we find ourselves in Ohio. The bill was House Bill 86 and its provisions enact broad and sweeping reforms of criminal and juvenile justice.
Not since the complete overhaul of criminal justice that was enacted in 1996 has an omnibus bill had such a broad impact on criminal law in Ohio. The provisions will affect who will go to prison, how long they will stay there and how much it will cost us as taxpayers to fund the criminal justice system.
Several provisions of the bill are intended to reduce the number of adults who will find their way into the prison system, instead directing them into community supervision programs. First, the bill increases the value that stolen items must reach in order for a theft offense to cross the threshold from a misdemeanor to a felony. Inflation made the change necessary in order to prevent minor theft offenses from being punished with a potential prison term.
Second, the bill provides guidance for courts that offenders who are convicted of failing to pay their child support should be kept in the community so that they may be supervised in the payment of their support obligation, but also provides new direction as to circumstances under which the imposition of prison terms would be appropriate for that offense. Third, the bill evens out penalties for offenses related to crack cocaine and powder cocaine so that the disparity between them is removed.
Fourth, the bill expands the number of offenders who are eligible for what is called “treatment in lieu of conviction”. These offenders are monitored in comprehensive treatment programs and face the possibility of prison sentences if they do not comply with their treatment. Other changes were made in relation to the offense of escape, to mandatory drug penalties and to how multiple prison sentences are calculated. Those changes are also aimed at reducing the prison population and providing community treatment and support.
Yet other provisions of the bill affect the length of time that inmates will remain in prison if they are sentenced to a period of confinement. These provisions include increasing the amount of “earned credit” an inmate can accumulate toward the completion of their sentence and a completely new system in which the Director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction can make a request for the early release of a prison who has served 80% of their prison term. That request would go to the sentencing court for consideration.
In the juvenile system, the provision affects the bind-over of juveniles into the adult system, widens the period of time during which a juvenile court can order the early release of a child who was committed to state custody for the commission of a felony and, for the first time, establishes a statutory procedure for juvenile courts to follow in order to determine whether a child is competent to stand trial in the juvenile system.
These reforms will, by design, lead to criminals who were formerly incarcerated instead remaining in local communities. The hope of both political parties, however, is that in so doing those criminals will receive assistance that will prevent them from committing future crimes and will reduce the overall cost of a prison system that was bursting at the seams. A full analysis of House Bill 86 can be found online at the website of the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, lsc.state.oh.us.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court. He served as a member of the committee that drafted the juvenile competency provisions eventually included as part of House Bill 86.