Ohio Sees Drug Rehab as Safe Alternative to Prison
Ohio is the most recent state to acknowledge that, for some convicted of drug crimes, drug rehab is a far smarter alternative than prison. Last week, Governor John Kasich signed a bill that could allow thousands of to leave prison early to attend drug rehab.
After truth in sentencing laws became popular back in the 90’s, the prison population expanded dramatically due to the fact that people were no longer being released early for good behavior or on the recommendation of parole boards. Ohio’s corrections system now holds about ten thousand more prisoners than it was designed for. In 2010, the Council of State Governments Justice Center criticized Ohio for sending too many low-risk offenders to prison for brief periods of time. This practice cost Ohio almost $200 million in 2008 alone as it costs up to $30,000 to house a criminal each year.
Proponents of the bill suggested that the reduced sentences for nonviolent felons could save Ohio taxpayers over $ 10 million per year in costs directly associated with incarceration. By signing the bill, Kasich has made it clear that drug abusers should not be treated like hard-core criminals. Over the past decade, scientific evidence has shown that inmates who participate in drug rehab programs are less likely to re-offend and re-enter the prison system.
Under the new law, some crimes that currently call for prison sentences would receive new classifications, allowing for alternative punishments other than incarceration. Officials believe that this change alone could reduce the prison overpopulation by one-third in just four years.
Judges will now have the ability to hand down reduced sentences to those convicted of nonviolent crimes, other than sex offenses. To be eligible for a reduction, the prisoner must have already served more than 20% of the original sentence. With low-level offenders, serving a year or less, making up a full quarter of the prison population, judges can now send new offenders to drug rehab or halfway houses instead. The cost of maintaining a person in a halfway house is about one-fifth of the cost of keeping them in jail. During their time at the house, they can also participate in work programs and attend drug rehab.
Under the new law, the judge must complete a checklist to determine whether a defendant is eligible for a halfway house or other low-security facility that specializes in drug rehab. However, in order to properly complete the checklist, approximately 90 minutes of research must also be conducted by the probation department. In Hamilton County, however, officials resent the costly administrative oversight such a program will require. Already faced with employee layoffs due to a lower budget for criminal justice, county administrators are at a loss as to how to pay for this new scheme.
Funding for this additional research, which will come from a different budget than where costs associated with incarceration will be reduced, was not included in the bill. County probation officers already handle approximately 150 cases per year; in 2012, the budget will be reduced by twenty percent. Faced with understaffing based on current sentencing guidelines already, administrators fear how they will handle the additional burden the changes are intended to create.
Opponents of the law complain that the new sentencing guidelines could allow a criminal to avoid jail all together, by being placed on probation and released into society.