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ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS

AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS — The number of inmates returning to Ohio prisons upon release has hit a new low, a trend the state attributes to a focus on keeping inmates in the community and the involvement of groups that work with inmates before their release.

The drop comes even when the number of people serving time for drug and property offenses has risen in the state, despite efforts to reduce the numbers of low-level offenders in prison.

A three-year review of inmates released in 2009 found that only 29 percent returned to prison, compared with the previous low of 31 percent, Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said last week. That’s compared with the national rate of about 43 percent.

Mohr said groups that work on helping inmates readjust to life outside are doing more to enter the prisons beforehand. The agency is being more welcoming of such groups, which can include faith-based organizations, halfway houses and volunteers.

“We owe a great deal to caring and concerned community people that have committed to reaching into our prisons and not just waiting until our people are leaving,” Mohr said.

A 2011 law aims to save the state millions of dollars by shrinking the number of inmates and reducing the number of offenders who might to return to prison as repeat offenders.

Ohio’s prison population remains under 50,000 inmates, a level not seen since 2007.

The number of inmates with the least serious convictions, such as theft or drug abuse, rose to 20 percent of all admissions late last year, from a previous low of 15 percent.

The increase in the number of low-level offenders is troubling in light of that law, Mohr said. He said the inmate population would be much higher if the state wasn’t also making headway on keeping the return rate low.

Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Vermont all saw the number of repeat offenders drop between 2005 and 2007, according to a study last year 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.

In December, the General Assembly approved a change to the law backed by the Ohio Judicial Conference that excludes sex offenders from those that judges were prohibited from sending to prison.

The prisons agency has also finalized procedures permitted by the 2011 sentencing law that would allow judges to release certain inmates who have served at least 80 percent of their prison sentence.

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