Ohio prisons director Gary Mohr is concerned that a package of prison reforms passed in 2011 have so far failed to achieve their goal of reducing the number of prisoners.
Director Mohr in an interview with members of the Northeast Ohio Media Group and Plain Dealer editorial boards, said “some aspects of that law, which was Senate Bill 86, haven’t worked – such as risk-reduction sentencing, which allows the release of certain prisoners who complete treatment and programming while incarcerated.While about 50,000 people have been sent to prison in the state since the new law took effect, Mohr said, risk-reduction sentencing has been used in less than 400 cases.
“There’s something wrong with it,” Mohr said. “It’s wrong or we haven’t communicated it well enough (to judges)”. Risk-Reduction Sentencing allows judges to issue what are called “risk-reduction” sentences. That means if inmates have a good record in prison and participate in programs, they qualify to get out early. As described in an ACLU article on the Ohio dilemma, “Why did things turn out this way? The short answer is that the bill’s provisions haven’t had the impact that lawmakers expected because its provisions aren’t being fully utilized.”
Interestingly, last year we reported on the conflict between Ohio judges and the Corrections Department’s interest in keeping less serious offenders out of prison (“Judges Upset at Ohio Prisons for Rejecting Commitments”). At the time we were reporting a different aspect of the Reform Package, a section that would prohibit the court from sending non-serious first offenders to prison, if rejected by the Corrections Department. Some judges bridled at what they saw as a loss of sentencing discretion.
The issue is very much the same. And it it exists across the nation. Judges reluctant to use new discretionary powers to keep offenders out of prison or to release them early under new statuary authority. Whether its California judges sentencing offenders to straight jail terms on prison sentences (rather than jail and community supervision), or Ohio judges refusal to use their discretion to keep non-violent offenders out of prison, Judges are reluctant to use scientific evidence-based risk assessments in sentencing non-violent offenders to non-prison sentences.
For the first time in decades, the legislatures, governors, and corrections agencies in a multitude of states are handing judges the tools to use their discretion to keep offenders out of prison and under community based supervision. The shame is that so few are willing to do so.