Bipartisan effort launched to reduce Ohio inmate population


By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press



COLUMBUS, Ohio — State leaders on Thursday launched a campaign to overhaul Ohio’s criminal justice laws with goals of reducing the number of people going to prison, keeping ex-offenders from returning and saving taxpayer dollars.

Not all crimes or criminals are equal, and prosecutors, judges and the prison system need more flexibility in dealing with appropriate punishments, said Senate President Keith Faber.

“This is not about being soft or hard on crime, it’s rather about being smart on crime,” said Faber, a Republican from Celina, standing beside five thick volumes constituting the state’s criminal laws.

The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Justice Action Network is promoting Ohio’s efforts, which target a current rewriting of those laws. Executive director Holly Harris said polls show strong support among Ohio residents for changing the system.

Thursday’s event brought together groups from opposite sides of the political spectrum, including Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Backers of the effort also enlisted a little star power, inviting author Piper Kerman, an ex-felon whose memoir, “Orange Is the New Black,” is the basis for a hit Netflix show about a women’s prison.

“Certainly the economic cost of massive incarceration is too much for us to bear, but also the social cost of incarcerating so many of our own citizens,” said Kerman, who recently moved to Columbus and teaches nonfiction writing to inmates in Marion and Marysville.

A marijuana legalization proposal is headed for the fall ballot, but Faber made clear that won’t help the incarceration situation in Ohio. That’s partly because most marijuana possession charges are already misdemeanors, but also because addictions can lead directly to more crime, he said.

“That’s the drug problem that marijuana legalization doesn’t help at all,” Faber said.

A series of changes in sentencing law begun in 2011 with the support of Gov. John Kasich attempted to address the high inmate population by keeping more first-time, nonviolent offenders out of prison. That effort has slowed the growth but also came just as the state’s heroin epidemic led to new prosecutions. Ohio had about 50,400 inmates last month.

Faber said the new effort is a look at the entire criminal code, not just sentencing laws.

Other supporters include Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Lanzinger and state Sen. Cecil Thomas, a Cincinnati Democrat and former police officer.

Thomas said he’s seen too many repeat offenders serving long prison terms for relatively minor crimes because judges’ hands are tied by sentencing laws.

“That is tremendously costly, folks, not only to the taxpayers of the state of Ohio but to the families that are devastated as a result of individuals sitting in the penitentiary,” Thomas said.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press