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May 9, 2020

Can the coronoavirus finally get Ohio's bipartsan criminal justice reforms over the finish line?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Fox News piece headlined "Ohio lawmakers hope for bipartisan reform of prison system stressed by COVID-19." Here are excerpts from a long piece:

Ohio lawmakers, lobbyists and researchers of various political stripes are finding a common cause in prison reform.  Bipartisan efforts to reform the troubled system have preceded the outbreak of COVID-19, but the virus has thrown the need for change into stark relief.

Across Ohio’s prison system, more than 4,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 40 inmates and two staff members have died.  The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has a current inmate population of nearly 50,000, about 10,000 above capacity.  Already cramped living conditions have been exacerbated and stressed by a virus that has forced 39,000 inmates into quarantine, according to ODRC data.

The prison system has long been scrutinized by the left for its overcrowding problem.  Now, with the system wracked by a deadly virus, conservative lawmakers are turning a critical eye to the status quo. “When you have organizations across the political and ideological spectrum saying, oftentimes, identical things about mass incarceration – it makes people take notice,” said Gary Daniels, a lobbyist with the ACLU of Ohio....

Two such displays are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3, which would allow for intervention in lieu of conviction and reform drug sentencing laws, respectively, The bills contain changes widely agreed upon as common-sense reforms to Ohio's criminal justice system. Both would put fewer people behind bars for minor criminal infractions, allowing for rehabilitation and community monitoring for crimes that don’t merit incarceration....

Still, bipartisan acknowledgment of a problem doesn’t always prompt bipartisan legislative action. Solutions can languish in the statehouse for months while lawmakers debate the finer points. Sometimes party lines won’t be moved....

Cooperation between think tanks and policy advocacy organizations can be a prelude to lawmakers taking up a cause in committee. Rep. Diane Grendell, a Republican lawmaker from northern Ohio and former Court of Appeals judge, sits on the Ohio House Criminal Justice committee and anticipates seeing prison reform enacted reasonably soon. “We have failed in our prison system,” Grendell said. “We have more prisoners than we have jails for, we keep passing more and more laws, we have to really clean it up. And I think all sides agree on that. We just have too many people in prisons.”...

The Buckeye Institute has long lobbied for fiscally conservative policies.  Recently, those policies have included criminal justice reform like S.B. 3. Lawson said prisons are the state’s third-largest budget item behind Medicaid and education. The Buckeye Institute has backed prison reform bills alongside liberal groups like Policy Matters Ohio and the libertarian Americans for Prosperity....

Ohio Rep. Erica Crawley, a Democrat from southeastern Columbus, isn’t as hopeful about a new era of bipartisanship in Ohio, though she does recognize the likelihood of criminal justice reform. “The pandemic has really brought those concerns and conversations to the forefront,” she said. “… We are having a really substantive conversation about rehabilitation. Obviously, we can’t lock inmates up and get out of this drug problem.”

For years, Ohio has been at the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic, with the state prison and county jail systems bearing the brunt of the resulting increase in incarceration.... Crawley said current reform efforts are good, but don’t go far enough. She said the bills under consideration wouldn’t do enough to mitigate the prison population enough to matter if the state were struck with a future pandemic.

“Right now, we have over 15,000 inmates who are considered low-level, nonviolent offenders,” Crawley said. “A lot of those are drug convictions. S.B. 3 would still allow people to be incarcerated for small amounts of drugs.  Until we have consensus and local court policy guidelines, we’re going to continue to see the same problems. If we have another pandemic, we’re going to be in the same position.”

I want to be optimistic that Ohio's General Assembly might get both House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3 to the desk of the Governor in short order.  But these bills have been "stuck" in the Ohio GA for quite some time, and Ohio's prison population has been way over capacity for even longer.  And despite a lot of public policy groups on both sides of the aisle supporting reform, many of the anti-reform usual suspects (e.g., prosecutors and police) have so far kept these relatively modest proposed reforms from becoming law.  I sure want to believe that the COVID crisis will get the Ohio GA to finally get these reforms enacted, but I never count any sentencing reform chickens before they are fully hatched.

May 9, 2020 at 04:03 PM | Permalink

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