Judges critical of program keeping some felons out of prison

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — State judges have continued to criticize a program allowing low-level felony offenders to remain in their communities under supervision without going to prison.

At issue are efforts to ensure public safety while reducing the number of people sent to prison. Counties have said the state isn’t providing enough money to communities required to carry out the program.

Cuyahoga County last week joined Stark County in deciding not to implement the program until next summer.

“The state’s offer of resources is completely inadequate to the demands that it will put on our local jails and our systems,” said Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.

Judge Kristin Farmer of Stark County Common Pleas Court likened the money offered by the state as a bribe to judges.

Franklin County judges meet Tuesday to decide whether to participate before a mandatory 2018 mandate kicks in for the state’s 10 biggest counties, the Columbus Dispatch reported (http://bit.ly/2x82Mfo ). Franklin County is slated to receive $4.5 million for the program over a two-year period.

To date, 48 Ohio counties have agreed to participate, including Clinton County in southern Ohio. Clinton County Judge John Rudduck said the program has been instrumental in helping develop sentencing alternatives.

Darke County commissioners passed a resolution September 6 to accept $178,251 in funding.

According to Darke County Common Pleas Court Judge Jonathan P. Hein, fifth-degree felonies primarily consist of low-level, nonviolent drug-related offenses.

“We’ve known for 20 years that, for that type of person, prison makes them worse,” Hein said. “We’re spending $26,000 a year to send someone somewhere that’s going to make them more likely to reoffend.”

Noncompliance from some counties in the state while other counties participate is “patently unconstitutional,” said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. A “uniform operation” of laws is violated when a defendant is sentenced to prison in one county for a crime they would not receive prison time for in another county, he said.

The Ohio Judicial Conference is working to collaborate with judges to implement the program. An uneven application across the state could lead to challenges, said Paul Pfeifer, the conference’s executive director.

“I’d fully expect a test case to be filed on that issue,” said Pfeifer, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice.

Offenders in the program are non-violent and typically guilty of drug possession or theft. They would be housed in local jails, in halfway-house type programs or on supervised probation.

About 4,000 offenders convicted of fifth-degree felonies were sentenced last year, according to the state corrections department. Ohio has about 50,250 inmates, down from 50,700 a year ago.


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com