COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Judges and the state prison system are at odds over a new law meant to lower Ohio’s inmate population by limiting the amount of time behind bars for low-level offenders who commit minor probation violations.
At issue is a mandate capping the amount of time judges can send offenders to prison for violations like missing counseling appointments or committing misdemeanors. The law enacted last year is part of a broader effort to save money and reduce crime by lowering Ohio’s inmate population. It affects inmates convicted of non-violent crimes such as drug possession, theft and fraud.
Under the law, judges can send inmates to prison for only 90 days for the least serious felony and 180 days for the next most serious.
But some judges say the law is unclear and are sending offenders to prison for longer sentences, often a year or more, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Judges also contend that the short sentencing caps lessen the incentive for repeat offenders to follow probation rules at all.
The state had counted on the law to decrease Ohio’s inmate population by about 400 this year and as much as 1,100 next year, the prison system said.
Cynthia Mausser, the prison system’s managing director of courts and community, noted that the longer such low-level offenders are “sitting in prison not becoming better people,” the more time they spend “away from those pro-social programs and relationships and connections” that could help them.
The dispute comes at a time when Ohio has lowered its prison population below 50,000 after hitting a record high of 51,273 in November 2008, but is now having difficulty pushing it below 49,000.
Prison populations soared across the country beginning with the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
But in recent years 35 states, led by California, have seen their prison population decrease, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, as officials recognize the costs of incarceration and the diminishing return on crime rates.
Many states including Ohio now try to keep first-time offenders convicted of low-level offenses in the community in substance abuse programs instead of in state prisons, which have fewer resources for rehabilitation.
North Carolina put similar caps on certain probation violations in 2011 as part of changes to its sentencing laws. Colorado, Nevada and Tennessee have created stand-alone facilities for probation violators as alternatives to prison sentences, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Ohio’s prison system sent about 300 letters to judges in recent months alerting them that they went over the caps. Prison officials don’t have the authority to overrule judges, however, and so the longer sentences stayed in place.
In southern Ohio, Robert Chambers violated his probation for a 2017 drug possession conviction in multiple ways, including admitted drug use and refusal to enter drug treatment, according to court records. Chambers’ attorney didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Adams County Judge Brett Spencer finally sentenced Chambers to a year in prison, and was then singled out by the prison system for surpassing the three-month cap.
“For not trying to become productive citizens, we give them a 75 percent bonus,” Spencer said of the sentencing caps.
Mahoning County Judge John “Jack” Durkin said judges know it’s better to focus on offenders’ substance abuse problems, help them find jobs and complete their education. But at some point, especially after several violations, prison must be an option “to protect the public and punish the defendant,” Durkin said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.