More prisoners?

ODRC initiative would bring felony 5 offenders to county jails

By Frank Lewis - [email protected]

As of Thursday, there are 69 felony-5 inmates from Scioto County in the state of Ohio’s prison system that would suddenly be thrust into the Scioto County Jail, a jail that is already habitually overcrowded, if the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction initiative would become law.

To put that in perspective, Scioto County Sheriff Marty V. Donini in a recent exclusive interview with the Daily Times, said he cannot continue to allow the Scioto County Jail to be overcrowded.

“I went to the (Scioto) County Commissioners and advised them that I could no longer sign a contract that commits us to 30 inmates per month for Pike County,” Donini said. “I did that because we were averaging 240-250 inmates every day for probably 4-5 months straight and I told them I can’t do it anymore.”

The jail is designed to house 190 prisoners, and Scioto County Commissioners Chairman Bryan Davis agrees, 69 additional prisoners would push the county jail over the edge.

“We can’t absorb that,” Davis said. “That’s how many felony 5s who are currently incarcerated that have come out of Scioto County.”

Davis, who serves on the Justice and Public Safety Committee of the Ohio County Commissioners Association, attended a meeting this week of that committee, which was also attended by ODRC Director Gary Mohr, and referred to it as “a very heated meeting.”

“ODRC wants to push the felony 5s out of our prison system and push them down into the counties,” Davis said. “He (Mohr) handled it well. I was expecting fireworks, because this is a very hard thing for the counties to swallow, because every county is stretched financially already, every county’s jails are full already.”

“Judge (Howard H) Harcha (III) spoke well for our county and said we could probably absorb this just a little bit better than most counties because we have facilities. We have experience in dealing with this situation, but where is the judicial discretion?” Davis said. “This isn’t just about drug addicts, he said in that case there are some who don’t want help. You can help them all you want to, they can spend 120 days in prison, but at the end of the day they’re going to come back out and they’re going to reoffend. They don’t want help.”

“For the state (Department of Rehabilitation & Corrections – DRC) to return 69 sentenced felons back to serve out their sentences within the Scioto County Jail would be devastating,” Donini said. “Our county jail constantly deals with overcrowding issues. This idea is obviously to save money for the state and DRC budget and to dump the cost onto the local taxpayer.”

Donini said the initiative also conflicts with precedence.

“What’s really frustrating about this genius idea is that back in September 2010, Senate Bill 86 limited the ability of judges to send many first-time felons to prison for committing fourth and fifth degree felonies. Those typically include drug possession, various thefts, and some assaults,” Donini said. “Many people fail to understand that Senate Bill 86 has already taken a toll on local county jails in Ohio because its common practice for judges who sentence these offenders to community-based corrections facilities such as STAR to be remanded to the custody of the Sheriff to be housed within the county jail until room becomes available at STAR.”

Donini cited an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer which said the criminal sentencing reform package was designed to reduce the prison population by keeping low-level offenders out of prison – placing them instead in halfway houses or community-based correction facilities – and creating new pathways for certain inmates to shorten their sentences.

The reforms also eliminated disparities in punishments for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses while making it easier for former prisoners to find jobs.

The article notes that the changes were expected to save the state more than $46 million over the following four years, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

“Those 69 inmates from Scioto County were sentenced to prison using the stringent guidelines enacted per Senate Bill 86 and were obviously deemed by the judge to be something other than a low level offender who needs to be sentenced to prison,” Donini said. “It’s sad that big government can find additional revenue by requiring local government to assume their responsibilities for housing sentenced felons.”

Davis said the other component of the argument is – “Is this not an overreach by the judicial branch? Can you tell judges what they can or cannot do, especially when under the statute the state is supposed to take care of felons? Period – that’s the law.”

He said, the initiative, as written, is flawed.

“Twenty-three dollars a day to take our felony 5s is a pittance compared to what it costs to house an inmate,” Davis said. “That’s all they’re willing to offer right now. That’s crazy.”

A fifth-degree felony in Ohio is a crime that, if convicted, carries a prison term of between six and 12 months and/or a fine of up to $2,500. Crimes that are considered class 5s in Ohio include illegal gambling, breaking and entering, and the exchange or possession of illegal items.

ODRC initiative would bring felony 5 offenders to county jails

By Frank Lewis

[email protected]

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.