COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The state’s painkiller abuse epidemic is thwarting efforts to reduce the inmate population through changes to sentencing laws, the Ohio prisons director said Tuesday during budget testimony.
Judges trying to keep low-level offenders out of prison are forced to take action after seeing an offender relapse several times, the prisons official, Gary Mohr, told the Senate Finance Committee.
“They kept coming back, and at some point in time, judges said, ‘I have to vacate this probation and send you to prison,’” Mohr said.
The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is asking lawmakers for an extra $14 million this year and $40 million next year to reopen closed units at two prison, take steps to address violence at the Toledo Correctional Institution, add parole officers because of the growing population and boost medical and mental health staffing.
Of that, $4.2 million this year and $8.5 million next year would pay for an additional 400 beds statewide in halfway houses and local corrections facilities to keep people close to home and out of prison.
Ohio currently has 50,250 inmates, 2,500 more than estimates from a 2011 law meant to reduce the inmate population, Mohr said.
The state has too many low-level offenders, with 42 percent of inmates serving less than a year and nearly one in every four inmates being “truly nonviolent” prisoners, he said.
“Many of these offenders could be more effectively punished in a community setting, thereby remaining employed, paying taxes, and supporting their families, as opposed to sending them to prison at a cost of nearly $23,000 a year,” Mohr said.
There’s reason for optimism in Ohio’s big cities as prison alternatives like halfway houses are working, with the need for such programs highest in rural areas, he said.
The most recent state data says 680 people died of heroin overdoses in 2012, up from 426 deaths in 2011, a 60 percent increase. The heroin increase also drove the overall number of fatal drug overdoses to a record of 1,272 deaths in 2012, up from 1,154 the previous year.
A provision in the 2011 sentencing law tied judges’ hands when it came to imprisoning first-time low-level offenders, and that alone would not have reduced the population that much, said Mark Schweikert, director of the Ohio Judicial Conference. But he said there’s no question the painkiller and heroin epidemic is countering the intentions of the law.
“In some cases, it’s an attempt to save a person’s life,” Schweikert said of sentences imposed by judges. “They continue to use and the only way they can keep the person drug-free for a considerable period of time is send them to prison.”