Would Ohio be safer with fewer people in jail?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio would be a safer state if fewer people were put behind bars, said advocates for criminal justice reform.

The ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center introduced a report on Tuesday about a comprehensive plan for criminal justice reform in the state.

Mike Brickner, senior policy director for ACLU of Ohio, said the state is experiencing a mass incarceration crisis, and the solution should be a smarter way to deal with crime instead of a tougher approach.

“Punishment and incarceration will not fix poverty, drug addiction, mental illness or an overall lack of opportunities,” Brickner said in a news release.

The report details six policy recommendations, one of which is limiting automatic punishments by eliminating mandatory minimums and reclassifying low-level felonies.

Of the 105 mandatory minimums in Ohio’s laws, 77 percent relate to drug crimes, according to the report.

Brickner said mandatory minimum sentences take away a judge’s ability to tailor sentencing based on specific circumstances and prevent offenders from receiving rehabilitative help.

“Mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges and force them to send people to prison who are not in any way served, in terms of going to prison,” he said. “So what prison and jails become are universities for criminals.”

Brickner said rehabilitation should be a focus of the criminal justice system aside from punishments.

Reforming the current criminal justice system is not only about reducing incarceration numbers, but about making the system fairer for all individuals, said Kari Bloom, a legislative liaison for the Office of the Ohio Public Defender.

Ohio prisons currently house more than 50,000 people. In 2015, about 44 percent of incarcerated offenders in the state were black while 52 percent were white. That’s disproportionate with Ohio’s population, which is 83 percent white and about 13 percent black, according to the last U.S. Census Bureau data.

Hamilton County had 4,547 inmates early last year, making it one of three counties with the highest number of people behind bars. About 3,300 of those inmates were black while 1,170 were white, according to a report by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Other recommendations include increasing mental health resources, reducing fines, limiting collateral consequences and implementing a unified, statewide community control system.

The report also touches on court bails. Brickner said Ohio courts currently favor setting cash bail, which leads to low-income individuals staying in jail for extended periods of time while waiting for their trial date.

“This is a tremendous waste for taxpayers,” Brickner said.

Instead, the report recommends other forms of pretrial release such as the use of unsecured bonds and electronic monitoring.

The report will be submitted to the Ohio General Assembly Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, which is currently tasked with reviewing and revising Ohio’s criminal laws.

The committee is expected to propose suggestions to lawmakers by August.

Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, urged both the committee and legislature to seriously consider the recommendations in the report as reforming the current criminal justice system is a once in a generation opportunity.

“We are actually shooting ourselves in the foot when we stay in the status quo,” JohnsonGrove said.

To view the full report, click here.

Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at   or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.