WTOL Investigation--Prison cuts could allow inmates back into - 19 Action News|Cleveland, OH|News, Weather, Sports

WTOL Investigation--Prison cuts could allow inmates back into neighborhoods

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By Jonathan Walsh - bio | email | Facebook

Posted by Nick Dutton - email

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) – Some convicted felons in Ohio can be released from prison early or may not sent back to prison -- even if they violate probation -- because the state lacks funding to house them.

At last check, Ohio's prison capacity is close to 38,700 -- but the current number of prisoners is nearly 51,000.

For example, the Lima prison facility is at 160 percent capacity and housing costs are not falling.

As a result, Ohio is looking at various ways to reduce the prisoner population, including letting some criminals out of prison early -- or even avoiding prison all together. 

Many folks, like Michelle Smith, whose cash and jewelry were stolen when her west Toledo apartment was broken into recently, are not happy about the idea.

"In life we all realize there are consequences to your actions and you have to be held accountable for those actions," said Michelle Smith.

The problem, according to Lucas County Probation Officer Amy Beard, is that there are too many prisoners and not enough prison funding.  

Beard is currently in charge of what the state calls a prison diversion program, a directive from the state, funded by the state, to reduce the prison population.

For example, a person is convicted of a crime. Normally, when the criminal eventually breaks probation rules, they would go back to prison.

However, under the diversion program they get intense probation supplemented with local support programs, work release, electronic monitoring and more supervision.

"All things being equal, they probably would have sent these people to prison, but because the institution has said we really don't have room (we have to) try to do something with them locally," said Beard.

The diversion program has only been in operation in Lucas County since October.

Right now, there are 40 to 45 people in the program, but they are not all low-level offenders. The plan focuses on those who have 12 months or less to serve.

Beard says they run the gamut from the lower level felonies to felony levels two and three.

The idea of prison diversion is to treat the criminals' underlying personal problems right in their own communities.

However, Michelle Smith is not in favor of intense probation. "I cannot imagine any type of probation being more intense than coming home at night, putting your key in the door and wondering did they hit me again."

Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Gene Zmuda says the offenders' victims are notified.

"The goal of the program isn't to avoid the component which is punishment, but rather making that punishment more meaningful," said Zmuda.

Senate Bill 22, another idea to help prison overcrowding, proposes to target criminals who have served 85 percent of their sentences to be released early.

There are restrictions on Felony One and Two Offenders, plus any with gun offenses are not eligible.

 The criminals have to go through several layers of approval, the first being judges, the Director of the State Prison System and even the warden of the facilities.

Robert Welch, warden at the Toledo Correctional Institution, says there are long waiting lists for the prison programs designed to help inmates not return to prison.

"I think we need to get the legislature on board to take a look at the low-level offenders," said Welch. "Really, this is not a place for them."

State Senator Mark Wagoner (R) says Ohio's budget forces the state to try prison diversion and examine Senate Bill 22.

"One of the real financial pressures we have on the state budget is prison," said Wagoner. "The idea is to try and find cost effective ways to still have them pay their debt to society but not necessarily have them in a prison."

However, State Representative Randy Gardner (R) says the "most important thing is that we keep our community and public safe…"

The Council of State Governments is using the Pugh Research Center to help to look at a comprehensive justice reinvestment project, a multi-year study to find the best use of the state's judicial system resources, for Ohio.

In the meantime, the prison diversion program and the proposed Senate Bill 22 are attempting to address overcrowding by prisoners.

Beard says the reality of the program is that some criminals are going to be back out in the community. "At one point or another and what we try to do is put them in the best possible position to be successful once they're off probation."

Currently it costs about $70 a day per inmate to keep him or her in prison or roughly $25,000 dollars a year.

Lucas County will re-apply for the prison diversion program in June and legislative aides say if Senate Bill 22 is voted into law it could save the state $50 million in two years – and maybe even more down the road.

However, some crime victims like Michelle Smith wonder how much the cuts could cost to her future security.

"I think the public should know that whether you're a victim or not," said Smith. "…it may not be you this time, but you don't know what tomorrow may bring."

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