If prison reform comes to Ohio, there are many issues to consider and much work to be done to reach agreement.

Proponents of a criminal-justice reform measure that failed badly on Nov. 6 were much maligned, but they had a point.

Drug offenses are the leading type of crime for which people are committed to Ohio prisons most years. And the most minor degrees of felonies, 4th and 5th degrees, have never comprised less than 40 percent of total prison commitments in the past 13 years, a Dispatch analysis of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data shows.

However, an Ohio state criminologist said there are a number of complex reasons why so many are locked up. And reversing the trend is far from simple.

"The first thing we have to ask is, 'Is that a goal?'" said Ryan D. King, who has examined the causes of the growth in prison populations.

There's growing agreement mass incarceration has gotten out of hand in Ohio and across the United States.

In a talk at Georgetown University this month, Yale University law professor James Forman Jr. said even though the United States has 5 percent of the world's population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prisoners, earning it the distinction of being "the world's largest jailer." The American Civil Liberties Union says the nation's incarcerated population has increased 700 percent since 1970.

Ohio's state prison population has grown from 9,411 in 1971 to 50,309 last year, a 435 percent increase, according to statistics compiled by the state prisons agency.

Issue 1 sought to address the exploding population and use the money saved to fight the opioid epidemic. In part, it aimed to reduce drug-possession crimes now classified as fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to misdemeanors for which first-time and second-time offenders could not be incarcerated. It also would have allowed people serving sentences for most crimes to reduce their sentences through educational and other self-improvement activities.

Critics, including Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, pointed out the first measure wouldn't be very effective, because only about 11 percent of the state's prison population is serving time for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies, not all of which are for drug possession. That's likely because some crimes in the other leading category of offense, crimes against persons, can carry decades-long sentences.

But Stephen JohnsonGrove, a leading advocate of Issue 1, argued the prison population isn't static — a portion of it cycles in and out every year, and Issue 1 would have significantly reduced the portion cycling in.

State prison statistics seem to support that contention, with 14 percent of all commitments for fiscal year 2018 stemming from drug possession, and 40 percent of commitments stemming from conviction of fourth- and fifth-degree felonies.

Even without the passage of Issue 1, which would have amended the Ohio Constitution, lawmakers have been working to address the state's high rate of incarceration. As part of the effort, Senate President Larry Obhoff, R-Medina, is working on legislation that would reclassify most minor drug felonies as misdemeanors.

But there's more to the causes behind exploding prison populations over the past 50 years, King said. Reforming drug laws is "not going to take us back to where we were before mass incarceration," he said.

King said big increases in crime rates between 1960 and 1995 brought numerous effects that have kept prison populations high even years after crime rates began to drop, as they have in Ohio. Get-tough-on-crime laws increased the length of criminal sentences, for example, and research King did in Minnesota showed more people are being convicted of repeat felonies, which often carry sentence enhancements.

Significant reductions in prison population have been achieved elsewhere. A 2016 report in the Federal Sentencing Reporter showed that by 2014, four states — New Jersey, New York, California and Connecticut — had reduced their prison populations by 20 percent from their previous peaks, often through sentencing and parole reforms.

But to do that, King said Ohioans have to make more basic decisions. For example, it's well known by the time most people reach their 30s or 40s, they're much less likely to commit crimes. But is the general public OK with seeing those people released from prison knowing they did bad things a decade or two earlier?

"We live in an era when retribution is a big part of the desire to punish people," King said.