Orange is The New Black author Piper Kerman, conservative political advocate Grover Norquist, and the ACLU walk into a press conference… sounds strange, right?
Well, that’s exactly what happened this week at the Ohio Statehouse when these very different people came together with legislators, judges and advocates to announce an upcoming overhaul of the state’s crime laws.
“No one is here today to say criminals should not be punished. We are here today to say that not all crimes or criminals are equal,” Senate President Keith Faber said Thursday. “It’s not about being soft or hard on crime, it’s about being smart on crime.”
The reforms, currently set to be completed then suggested to the legislature by Fall 2016, follow similar overhauls in other states like Texas, South Carolina and New York.
Possible changes could include reducing the penalties for non-violent crimes, routing convicts into community-based rehabilitation instead of prisons, and stopping the incarceration of individuals with addictions or mental health problems; all the with end goal of reducing Ohio's incarceration rate while still reducing crime.
The reforms are being put together by the 24-member Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, made up of legislators, lawyers, law enforcement, judges and advocates from all over the political spectrum.
One of those members is Senator Cecil Thomas of Cincinnati. He served 27 years in law enforcement before joining the state legislature, where he serves as the minority ranking member on the state’s criminal justice committee.
He said that in his experience of being a law enforcement officer gives him a different perspective.
“In 27 years of law enforcement, I found myself locking up repeat offenders, individuals who committed low-level drug offenses. Over and over again we would send them back to the penitentiary. Individuals who were mentally ill, over and over again,” Thomas said.
He said that it’s important to note that not all crimes are created equal, especially in Cincinnati.
“Are there other alternatives that we can use?" he said. "Can we instead use our penitentiaries for those we consider to be serious threats? Over and over, doing the same thing, expecting different results – that’s the definition of insanity.”
Different Reasons, Same Results
Two individuals came to Columbus who don’t often see eye-to-eye on issues, but who are working to achieve the same result.
Allison Holcomb is the campaign director for smart justice at the Americans for Civil Liberties Union. She described the organization as “groundbreaking.”
She cited the fact that the US leads the world in incarceration as just one the reasons that reform is needed here.
“That’s an abject failure of our founders’ experiment to demonstrate to the world that freedom is the most important pre-condition to maximizing the human potential to achieve greatness,” Holecomb said. “There is a dissonance between where we are now and our shared commitment to elevating, expanding and cherishing freedom.”
While Holcomb’s reasons pertain to human rights protection, Grover Norquist’s are centered squarely on saving taxpayers money and reducing government waste.
Norquist, a conservative advocate famous for recruiting GOP politicians to sign a pledge to never raise taxes, headlined that the problems of over-criminalization and over-incarceration are some that legislators, both on the right and left, can agree on.
“This is not about compromise," he said. "Compromise in Washington DC is when people who disagree get together and each agree to do something stupid that they think is counter-productive because they think there’s a good thing in the bill. This is principled men and women on the right and the left who, for their own reasons, agree that there are too many people in prison, not the right people in prison, and that movement can be made."
"Ohioans Deserve Those Same Results."
Piper Kerman, who herself served time for a felony conviction, is the author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, the memoir that inspired the hit Netflix series.
She now lives in the Columbus area, where she teaches non-fiction writing at local prisons, in addition to being an advocate for prisoners’ rights and criminal justice reform.
Kerman said that reducing the state’s prison population could provide a “roadmap” for other states.
“I’ve never met a single American who is proud of the fact that we lead the world in incarceration,” Kerman said. “We see a national consensus, both sides of the aisle, all sides of the political spectrum, that reducing our prison population safely is a top priority for government.”