Butler County judges still don’t like the state law that mandates housing low-level felons in the county jail instead of state prisons, but the program that brings $2.5 million to county coffers will continue.
Back in 2018 the state required Ohio’s 10 largest counties — Butler County is No. 7 — to stop sending non-violent felony offenders who commit low-level crimes to prison, hoping that lasting rehabilitation is more likely to happen at the local level than in state prisons.
Gov. Mike DeWine removed the mandatory requirement two years ago, and the legislature didn’t change it. During state budget negotiations this year, the legislature proposed making the Targeted Community Alternative to Prison (TCAP) program mandatory statewide and adding offenders convicted of fourth-degree felonies (the second-least serious of five categories of felonies) to the program.
Now, 58 of the 88 counties participate in TCAP. Although the legislature did not agree to make the program mandatory, it did give counties the option to keep certain Felony 4 offenders in jails if they choose.
Butler County Common Pleas Presiding Judge Keith Spaeth said most judges were rarely sending Felony 5 offenders to prison before TCAP, but the higher-degree offenses are another matter.
“If they want to give us money to do something we were doing anyway, that’s great,” Spaeth said. “But when you start moving the program into felony of the fourth degree and now you get wife-beaters and people who have actually victimized people, I don’t think the judges are going to go for that, unless it’s forced on them.”
Spaeth said fourth-degree felony crimes are things like domestic violence, stealing a car and breaking and entering with the intent to commit a crime like theft. Typical Felony 5 offenses are felony non support of dependents; theft; possession of drugs, and receiving stolen property.
The county commissioners recently approved renewing the $2.5 million state grant that covers the program through June 2023.
The law was also aimed at lowering prison populations, a state expense-saving measure.
JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the state prison system, said “pre-COVID estimates (FY 2020) are that the TCAP program has saved approximately 918 prison beds per year and approximately $3.6 million in marginal costs per year.”
Marginal costs are things like meals, medications, uniforms and bedding, and other items used to care for inmates.
“If not for the prison bed savings, our population would be higher, resulting in a higher operational cost and the possible construction of new prison space,” Smith told the Journal-News. “Our costs would be higher today if not for the bed savings associated with TCAP.”
Ohio Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Green Twp. in Hamilton County, is a staunch supporter of TCAP and advocated for making it mandatory.
“We are spending way more on the program. There is no question about that,” Seitz said. “But had we not had the program, the number of beds would not be going down, it would be going up. That is the overlooked benefit of the program. The idea here is never send them in the first place.”
He said the Felony 5 offenders usually only spend a few months in prison and the cost to process and parole them is “way more than the punitive benefit you might get from having put them there for 4 to 6 to 8 months.”
Spaeth said removing judicial sentencing discretion is a problem.
“Non-violent Felony 5s nine times out of 10 the judge is looking to give those people treatment,” Spaeth said. “The first choice the judge is normally looking at is treatment, but the only way a judge can motivate people to go to treatment is because there is the threat of going to a state prison and all this does is take that threat away.”
The state mandates that no more than half the county’s grant can pay for the actual cost to house the prisoners. The rest is to be spent on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other programs. Offenders receive services designed to help them overcome barriers such as mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of education and a host of others. The daily cost to house inmates is $72.
The county has used the money to start the ankle-monitoring program and salaries for additional probation officers who were needed to keep track of offenders in the community. The new agreement with the state calls for those types of costs and probation department supplies, including bulletproof vests and vehicles.
The judges are also studying using some of the funds for courtroom technology upgrades like installing a sound system that includes a “white noise” feature so jurors can’t hear what the judge and attorneys are saying during sidebars at the bench.
Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison said this is one of the least restrictive grants around.
“You can buy equipment, you can buy cars. The only thing they exclude in TCAP is counties can’t use it for capital improvements,” Gilkison said. “It was a pretty wide open grant from the state in the beginning and still is. As long as people are getting diverted from the Department of Corrections and you’re not building a building with it, you’re pretty good.”
There are currently 76 people on ankle bracelets, which is a benefit of TCAP. Doing the math, with 76 people on monitoring, that’s $5,472 a day or $984,960 if those people were sentenced to six months in jail.
“I think that’s been really successful,” Gilkison said. “That’s a big savings to the county, getting the option to let them out of the jail as opposed to having 70-plus more people sitting in the Butler County Jail.”
Sheriff’s office Finance Director Vickie Jo Barger said as of June 30 she had $843,662 left to spend from the previous grant allocation and they are on pace to spend it all. They spent $49,280 on programming and education; $73,437 on electronic monitoring; $275,403 on personnel costs, and just over $1.2 million for jail housing.
Seitz said there is more money available for programs like TCAP through the federal American Rescue Plan and the state is looking into tapping that resource.
“Somewhere in the volume of federal money that was created as part of the American Rescue Plan was a huge dollop of money that could be used by states and localities for programs like TCAP,” Seitz said, adding that he alerted the Departments of Corrections to the funding. “I said listen, here is a boatload of money you ought be applying for. Might as well use the federal money instead of our money.”