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September 1, 2014

Gendered perspective on Ohio's challenges with opioids and prison growth

As reported in this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," Ohio has struggled of late with an increase in its prison population.  And this reality has prompted at least one prominent paper to urge reforms focused on a particular demographic:

A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.

Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women. From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854, said JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright. Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade. Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates....

Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs. To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court. The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.

Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction. Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”

Finally, prisons must expand the amount of effective drug treatment they provide, even as Ohio courts continue to send them people who would be better served in community programs. The growing number of women entering prison in Ohio is more than a demographic shift. It’s a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its heroin and opioid epidemic.

September 1, 2014 at 10:02 AM | Permalink

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My state, Kentucky, began addressing this problem some years ago, by building 10 new drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers across the state, for both men and women. Governor Beshear placed his wife, Jane, on the project's task force. Interestingly, Kentucky found much of the money thru funds of the Kentucky Housing Corporation, which uses its Federal funding to build and subsidize housing for the poor. The theory is that the treatment centers are temporary housing, where addicts live until they are clean and sober enough to get jobs and pay rent for housing. The Legislature also overhauled Kentucky's criminal laws, to divert low level drug addicts and dealers to drug treatment an probation, rather than prison. House Bill 463 became effective in June 2011. Possession of less than 8 ounces of marijuana is now a citation-only offense, for which the defendant is not arrested. The new law also substantially restricts Judges from sending to prison those who violate their probation and parole by using drugs or alcohol, or who commit minor misdemeanors or technical violations (like missing an appointment with a probation officer). To the extent possible, they are to be treated in the community. Appellate courts have reversed prison time where trial judges fail to follow the new laws.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Sep 1, 2014 11:37:20 AM

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