COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio lawmakers are undermining attempts to reduce the state’s prison population by continuing to introduce tough-on-crime bills that have the opposite effect, policy groups on the left and the right said Wednesday.
Lawmakers introduced 54 bills in the first six months of the current session that would send more people to jail or prison, or just over one of every 10 bills at the Statehouse, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
“It defies logic that Ohio could simultaneously be reforming its system while continuing to propose these misguided and harmful bills that only feed mass incarceration,” according to the “Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline” report unveiled by Mike Brickner, ACLU-Ohio’s senior policy director.
The ACLU, the state Public Defender’s Office and the conservative Buckeye Institute say lawmakers are pushing the bills even as a committee studies changes to Ohio’s criminal code that could reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.
They recommend letting that body, the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, meet next year’s deadline before passing any more bills that would add to the prison population.
The presumption needs to shift from whether new laws are needed to whether the state already has enough laws on the book, said Robert Alt, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions.
One of the bills singled out Wednesday would boost penalties for repeat violent offenders who commit crimes with guns.
Sponsor Sen. Jim Hughes defended the legislation, saying it’s a narrowly tailored bill going after the “worst of the worst” offenders.
“That’s one of our most important things to do here as legislators, is make sure that those people are put away and our children, our families, and our communities are safe,” said Hughes, a Columbus Republican and former prosecutor.
Sen. Bill Seitz, like Hughes a tough-on-crime Republican, agreed with the ACLU report’s conclusions. He pushed sentencing changes four years ago aimed at reducing the prison population.
“You can’t keep saying we want to increase penalties on everything at the same time you want to reduce prison populations,” said Seitz, of Cincinnati.
Gov. John Kasich and legislative leaders have introduced several proposals over the past few years to reduce Ohio’s prison population, currently around 50,000, or about 130 percent of capacity.
The latest effort was announced early last month, when Senate President Keith Faber backed the work of the recodification committee surrounded by some of the same groups that met Wednesday.