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February 3, 2009

Ohio's prison cost problems (and a class project?) for consideration

I mentioned in our first class together that every important public policy issues can be seen as a sentencing issue.  A great timely example of this comes from the budget proposals put forth by Ohio's governor yesterday.  Of course, this lead story from the Columbus Dispatch does not focus on sentencing issues.  But, as detailed in the 3-page attachment linked below, paged D-70 to D-72 of the proposed executive budget have a lot to say about sentencing and punishment.  Consider these snippets from these pages:

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s (DRC) institutional population is at an all-time high and projects to keep growing. In 1971, the institutional population was 9,129. Of every 100,000 Ohio residents, 85 were incarcerated in a state prison. DRC ended calendar year 2008 with a prison population of 50,887, meaning that 443 of every 100,000 Ohio residents (586 out of every 100,000 adult residents) were incarcerated in a state prison. As shown in the chart below, DRC has predicted substantial increases in the prison population over the next ten years, reaching 59,846 in 2018.

Skyrocketing intakes (admissions to the DRC system) from calendar years 2002 to 2008 have been a primary driver of the increase in prison population. The number of prisoners who entered the DRC system a given year increased 25.4 percent, from 21,787 in 2002 to 29,069 in 2008. This increase in the annual intake rate has increased average sentence lengths, continuing to create upward pressure on the prison population. During fiscal year 2008, approximately 57 percent of inmates committed into the DRC system were low-level felony four (F-4) and felony five (F-5) offenders, whose lengths of stay average a little less than one year and cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

This Executive Budget proposes several reforms to criminal sentencing in Ohio, in an effort to cautiously and judiciously reduce the prison population and the associated substantial costs to taxpayers. The targets of these reforms are low-level, non-violent offenders, who drive the booming prison population. Reversing the current trend of population growth is imperative to the fiscal health of the state.

Download Ohio Budget Sentencing and Correctional Reform

February 3, 2009 in Ohio news and commentary | Permalink


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This is an example of the state going "Oh %@#$, I guess our policy concerns a number of years ago weren't the best." For example, the child support provision. A number of years ago, legislatures probably wanted to put harsher penalties (imprisonment) on parents who did not pay child support. So - non-payers started to go to prison. Now, the state is realizing that, while they still want non-payers to "pay," there is more of a cost and undesirable result in having them incarcerated.

I feel like this is what happens to all sentencing decisions. Plan A will be implemented, then 20 years later, it is realized that Plan A really wasnt a good idea and it is revoked. Then Plan B - with the same result. I guess I am just jaded - nothing ever works like it is supposed to nor does it work efficiently.

Posted by: Jeanna | Feb 3, 2009 10:59:24 AM

It's called life Jeanna. Trial and error, and learning from past decisions/mistakes. Policy concerns ebb and flow with the ideals and beliefs of each generation. Rather than look at the reforms as an "oh shit" reaction, we could applaud the Commission for trying to make changes to adequately reflect our current policies and beliefs.

I'm surprised you aren't pushing for some sort of reform that prohibits incarceration for sex offenders. For example, we should build a big town, put all the sexual deviants, rapists and child porn lovers in the town and then build huge city walls around the town so no one can get out. Add some cameras, and you have a great reality tv show.

Posted by: Andy | Feb 3, 2009 8:18:33 PM

I will never advocate for taking sex offenders out of prison. I just dont like the post-incarceration "stuff."

Posted by: Jeanna | Feb 4, 2009 10:00:15 AM

Yeah I don't know what not incarcerating sex offenders has to do with it at all—it just looks like the economy is forcing states to consider the returns they are getting on their investment when they put someone in prison, so they might have to think about what actually works rather than how it looks to voters. (Though voters now might appreciate saving tax money a lot more than they did a couple years ago, too.) It's something the state should have been able to realize without trial and error.

Non-payment of child support is a perfect example. Imprisonment is not an appropriate punishment for these offenders, especially given how expensive it is. The main goal should be to get the person to pay child support, because the purpose of the law is (obviously) to support children. It definitely thwarts that purpose to remove the offender from society, even for a short time. From the numbers given in the report, it looks like it costs the state $4,314 on average to incarcerate them, so the state loses a lot of money in the course of trying to get them to pay. I would imagine the same arguments can be used for a variety of other offenses: the same purposes can often be served without being as punitive or spending so much money.

Posted by: Caitlin | Feb 4, 2009 8:54:20 PM

Good point on the non-support cases, Caitlin. That is a great example of a non-violent offender for whom imprisonment seems like a bad solution on a few levels. Also, I think that some offenses (this one, case in point) are so closely related to civil law that to apply criminal penalties feels inherently "off." In the non-support scenario, for any term of imprisonment, the State is guaranteeing that the defendant won't be paying anything to his children. Why not REQUIRE via court order that he work at least a part-time, court-arranged job with that money all being garnished for the back non-supports? And I'm not an expert in this arena--maybe those are all the hoops that get jumped through before prison--maybe that is a last-ditch deterrent solution--but it seems antithetical to the main goal in my mind--which is restitution to the mother/children.

Posted by: Gov'tGirl (Rachel) | Feb 6, 2009 2:19:14 PM

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