When Harry Klide and Frank Fleischer initiated the Stark County Criminal Justice Reform Committee, the goal was to cut the state’s inflated prison population. As the late Judge Klide often asked, how can a country based on the principle of liberty have the world’s highest number of people locked up?
Though the committee can boast some accomplishments, we have failed in this main objective. Ohio’s penitentiaries are still dangerously overstuffed at around 51,000 inmates. For comparison, in 1975 the state held 10,000 prisoners, and the incarceration rate had been fairly steady since the 1920s. The rise in imprisonment was largely due to escalating violent crime, but that peaked in 1991, and current crime rates are lower than they were in 1974.
Most disturbingly, Ohio still uses confinement to deal with public health issues such as drug addiction. One in four of all people newly admitted to prison in Ohio are there for a drug offense, and one in eight are there specifically for drug possession. Much of the recent growth is driven by the explosion in women behind bars. We incarcerate over 4,000 women, and almost all of them are in for non-violent offenses.
Fortunately, Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal includes steps toward easing the reliance on prisons and ending the futile revolving-door approach to drug abuse. The proposals are based on the RECLAIM program, one of the great untold success stories in transforming criminal justice.
As administrator of Stark County’s Family Court, Rick DeHeer helped oversee the pioneering overhaul of the state’s juvenile system. In 1992, Ohio was locking up 2,500 youths in facilities at 150 percent capacity. Not only was this expensive, it was counterproductive, as young people who went in after committing petty crimes were often coming out hardened gang members.
In 1994, the Department of Youth Services rolled out RECLAIM to turn the juvenile system around. The plan targeted lower-level felony offenders for community interventions by guaranteeing funding if counties sent fewer juveniles to state institutions. Though RECLAIM faced skepticism from judges and prosecutors, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that Ohio’s costs of operating juvenile facilities dropped by over $50 million. Public safety improved, and today state facilities hold fewer than 500 juveniles.
Offenders that previously ended up in state institutions are now treated locally. The Stark County Family Court works diligently to provide effective programs for them and their families, leading to decreased recidivism rates. Only the most serious offenders are sent to correctional facilities.
In a time when more funds are critically needed for narcotics treatment, drug prevention, child protective services, and community policing, Ohio spends $1.7 billion annually on prisons. RECLAIM is a valuable model for adult corrections to redistribute these funds toward strategies that work. To encourage counties to rehabilitate non-violent offenders in the community, the governor’s budget calls for increasing grants from $40.3 million in 2017 to $61.3 million in 2018 and to $81 million in 2019.
Few people think that prisons are a beneficial way to handle drug abuse. Yet we keep doing it, in part because counties save money in the short run by sending their problems to the state. The proposed reforms change these incentives, and lessen our addiction to incarceration.
DeHeer, a Massillon resident, served as administrator of the Stark County Family Court from 1989 through July 2016.
Cooley, a North Canton resident, is an associate professor of history at Walsh University. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors.