Last updated: August 25. 2013 7:04AM - 174 Views

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LIMA — Ohio has more than 50,000 inmates behind bars, which makes for a prison system that is operating at 132 percent capacity. There is no money to pay for more prisons.But Ohio’s lawmakers think they’ve come up with a solution to fix the problem.House Bill 86 is aimed at lowering the prison population, preventing people from committing crimes again and saving taxpayers money. The bill, passed by the House 96-2 and awaiting action in the Senate, instructs judges to use community programs to treat offenders instead of sending them to prison. This would apply to low-level felony offenders who did not commit a violent crime.“It will reserve costly prison beds for the most violent predators,” said Mike Dittoe, a Republican spokesman in the Ohio House of Representatives. While the state wants to do something about its prison population, those working in the system locally fear the bill is just a way to push the cost onto counties that have their own financial struggles. A costly solution“How is this going to be funded?” Allen County Commissioner Dan Reiff asked as he considered the goals of House Bill 86.Reiff and other commissioners across the state predict counties will pick up the costs. Reiff said he has yet to see the state offer money to help counties pay for added responsibilities. “It’s going to be strictly a situation where they will clean out the prisons and we will have to be responsible for these low-level felonies,” Reiff said. Allen County Sheriff Sam Crish fears keeping low-level felons locally would push the crowding problem from prisons to county jails.“That burden will be put on the county. Our jail will see max and over, and our concern is when we’re over, where are we going to send them?” Crish said.On top of that, Crish said local taxpayers will have to bear the burden of paying for additional inmates in the jails across the state.“The question has not been answered. Are they going to fund us?” Crish said.Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick is also concerned. He said the state is not offering money and counties are expected to pick up the cost. “They’re passing the buck back to the county. That’s the bottom line. They’re forcing the counties to either let criminals walk or pay for housing them themselves.”Worst of all, Allen County will not see any of the savings, and taxes will not go down. Instead the state will use the money a different way while counties struggle to fund programs, Waldick said.Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon said his jail’s inmate population is at maximum capacity now. “Sending felony 4s and felony 5s to us is just going to over-populate,” he said. “I understand what the state is doing and that they have to curb their crowding, but it’s coming back to the communities and the sheriffs who run the jails.”Allen County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Reed said the burden will be wide reaching.“The communities are going to have to meet the burden, the economic burden. Our probation officers are going to be stretched, our resources in the community, in terms of counseling, are going to be stretched,” he said.Helping offendersState Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said the bill’s purpose is to not shove offenders into jail instead of prison. He said the purpose is to give judges more options to help offenders and possibly keep those people from committing future crimes.“The point of this is to not shift everything to the locals and let them worry about it. The point of this is to give them a variety of options,” Huffman said. Allen County Common Pleas Judge Richard Warren said Allen County judges already use alternative programs in lieu of sending some offenders to prison. The WORTH Center and specialized courts that offer intense supervision and counseling programs have been in use for years, he said.In the last two decades, such programs have gained popularity. Community-based correctional facilities and other treatment programs that, for example, get help for an offender with a drug problem are being used more frequently. Huffman said House Bill 86 supports those programs and wants to add more programs like them. The premise of putting people into programs instead of prison will get them that help and keep them from entering the criminal justice system in the future, he said.House Bill 86 also supports further use of GPS monitoring for offenders, something Putnam County already has jumped on. This allows them to be monitored outside of jail and prison while setting sanctions such as house arrest. Putnam County Sheriff Jim Beutler said GPS monitoring has been successful in his county. Offenders pay a $25 start-up fee plus $25 a day to be on GPS, usually for terms of less than 60 days. For many, it beats sitting in jail. For Beutler and the court system, it offers an alternative to jailing offenders by letting them out with restrictions. Offenders may be allowed to leave the house for work only, for example, with their location monitored through a computer.GPS can alert deputies if an offender goes somewhere he should not go. GPS has a speaker to warn the offender he is somewhere he should not be, Beutler said.“We don’t have to make house visits. We can just check from our office. When it comes to first time, non-violent offenders, it’s a good thing,” Beutler said.GPS differs from the old form of ankle bracelet monitor with its ability to track an offender anywhere. The ankle bracelet program, which operates using the offender’s home telephone, remains the most popular since GPS monitoring is new. Tweaking the systemHuffman labeled House Bill 86 a “sentencing correction” bill and not a “sentencing reform” bill. Huffman said the bill gives more discretion to judges issuing sentences.“What we’re trying to do is put the guys and gals who are dangerous in prison and find another way to punish and rehabilitate people who really aren’t dangerous,” Huffman said.For example, Huffman questions whether people who do not pay child support should go to prison. “We want people paying child support but most of the time the cost to incarcerate people like that is more than they owe in child support,” Huffman said.Allen County’s Judge Warren has spent more than 40 years in the criminal justice system watching new laws come and go, so he is cautious of any new law that is supposed to offer a strong fix.“It seems like every eight to 10 years there’s always a new and improved bill,” Warren said.Warren worries House Bill 86 is trying to create one-size fits-all fixes when that just doesn’t work. Each offender’s circumstance is different, he said. “Judges look at each case seriously. We don’t willy nilly send people to prison because they’re in on a felony 4 or felony 5. We have to do it because we have to consider the safety of the community,” Warren said. Judge Reed shares Warren’s concern. “If they take away that discretion from us, that sits a little uneasy on me,” he said.Waldick said it’s a mistake to take away a judge’s discretion since judges consider each case on its own. “Anytime you take away a court’s discretion, it’s a bad idea,” Waldick said. Not sending first time, low-level, non-violent offenders to prison is something judges do now without a new law forcing them to. It’s hard to account for factors such as the circumstances of the crime and the offender’s record or lack of record, Reed said.“That’s what we’re elected to do, to make the decisions,” Reed said. “I don’t necessarily want a legislator who doesn’t know anything about this case who says you can’t sentence someone to consecutive sentences because the prisons are overcrowded.”Huffman again said the bill gives judges more options, not fewer.“Community programs are less expensive and do a better job,” he said.Waldick said some of the measures amount to lawmakers getting weak on crime. For example, changing the maximum sentence of a felony 3 offense to three years from five, he said.“We’re going in the wrong direction,” he said. Auglaize County Common Pleas Judge Frederick Pepple agrees something needs to be done about the prison population but believes the state gave up a valuable tool in parole when the concept of “truth in sentencing” set specific terms for inmates in 1996. “The old system of parole that allowed them to release those who were the least risk and the most deserving of early release had advantages over draconian rules,” Pepple said. Pepple also said lawmakers should look at provisions that don’t make sense. For example, the bill allows a first-time offender to steal up to $149,999 without going to prison — providing the victim is not in a certain category such as the elderly. He said that amount is high and may very well deserve time in prison.Crish is concerned the bill is too broad, also.“You can’t have that message out there saying if you get caught for a felony 4 or felony 5, you will not go to prison. We have to have some teeth when we sentence people,” he said.  “You have to have a deterrent.”Reed shares that worry. Criminals learn the system and know how much they can get away with, he said.“Will this erase the deterrent effect?” Reed said. “More people may say ‘I can steal a TV or use drugs and not go to prison because it’s a felony 4.’”Lima Police Chief Kevin Martin is concerned offenders may not get the rehabilitation they need.“If they’re not truly rehabilitated then they’re going to go back to committing crimes again,” Martin said.Reed remains open to House Bill 86 especially since it’s expected to pass through the Senate with strong support. What he is not a fan of is the big reason behind the bill that affects decisions on public safety. “It’s unfortunate a lot of decisions in the criminal justice system have to be made for economics, but that’s the world we live in,” Reed said.

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