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March 22, 2016

"Looking Forward: A Comprehensive Plan for Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. Here is the report's introduction:

Ohio has a mass incarceration crisis.  There are currently 50,600 Ohioans in prisons designed to hold 38,600; that’s at least 12,000 too many of our neighbors and fellow citizens in cages.  And beyond these inhumane numbers, there is a fundamental misuse of criminal-justice tools to attack social and health problems.  We have responded to poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, or an overall lack of opportunities with punishment.

Instead of treating people with mental illness, we criminalize them and block access to the care they so desperately need. We allow low-income people to be victimized by steep fines and costs, with many languishing in local jails because they cannot afford to pay a court fine or make bond.  People who have a small amount of drugs are not given treatment for their addiction, but instead offered prison sentences and a felony conviction.  Those who try to re-enter society have the door slammed shut by mounting collateral sanctions that prevent them from getting a job, housing, education, reliable transportation, and more.

The result is a system that is costing our state in every sense of the word.  Ohio has the sixth largest prison population in the nation. In the last decade, the prison population has increased 12 percent despite the fact that the violent crime rate has reached a 30-year low.  In 2014, taxpayers spent over $1.7 billion to operate the state prison system alone. Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on crime-survivor services, schools, addiction treatment, mental healthcare and other services that enrich our communities and that keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.  Nowhere are the negative effects of mass incarceration felt more than in communities of color. African Americans account for nearly half the state’s prison population but only a little more than a tenth of the total state population.  Mass incarceration has decimated neighborhoods, leaving many communities of color with countless people unable to find employment and cycling in and out of the justice system.  

State leaders have begun to recognize that mass incarceration is simply not working and must be dismantled.  In 2011, a bi-partisan group of legislators, along with advocates and activists, passed House Bill 86 (HB 86).  This legislation was part of the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative that sought to reform state criminal justice systems and provide resources for strategies that depopulate prisons and jails.  While HB 86 promised modest reforms, it was never fully implemented or funded, and despite a short plateau, Ohio’s prison population is growing.

The time for modest, incremental steps is over.  We must challenge ourselves to imagine a fundamentally different justice system that is truly just, and not merely focused on punishment.  We must usher in an era of being smart on crime, not just tough on crime, where accountability does not mean punishment for punishment’s sake.  We can create forms of accountability that restore the law-breaker to being a productive member of society while also offering more robust healing and restoration to crime victims.

Currently, the Ohio General Assembly has created a Criminal Justice Recodification Committee that is tasked with rewriting our criminal laws.  Once again, state leaders have invited members of that committee to use this opportunity to change our justice system.  However, the problem does not begin or end simply with the contents of Ohio’s criminal code, nor does the solution reside solely with the Committee.  Their work represents a meaningful opportunity to bring about substantive reform — that opportunity must not be squandered on narrow, technical edits to statutory language.  Now is the chance for the legislature to precisely identify and fundamentally change the policies that drive excessive incarceration.  It is with this approach that we can perhaps finally begin looking forward to a new justice system that makes our communities stronger and lifts up the people of Ohio, rather than keeping them down.

March 22, 2016 at 10:49 PM | Permalink

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