Ohio may pay counties to take inmates off its hands

Ohio prisons officials have a new strategy to reduce inmate overcrowding: pay counties to take the prisoners. The Targeted Community Alternative to Prison program, included in Gov. John Kasich’s biennial budget proposal, would divert 3,400 nonviolent, low-level offenders from state prisons to community incarceration and treatment programs over two years. Offenders who have committed violent or sex offenses would be ineligible.

The state would pay counties $23 per prisoner per day, less than half the $67.84 it costs at a state prison. Although state officials wouldn’t dictate how the money could be used, it typically would go for added supervision, electronic monitoring, drug treatment, community service and job-placement programs.

Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, is emphatic that the program isn’t just about reducing a logjam in prisons — or saving money — although it could do both.

“There is evidence that says nonviolent offenders, often addicted Ohioans, have outcomes that are twice as effective at one-third the cost if they are treated locally as opposed to sending them to prison,” Mohr told The Dispatch.

“We’re fighting for a generation some would say we’ve lost already. I’m not giving up on them.”

The budget proposes spending $58 million on the program over two years, including $19 million in the first year. Mohr estimated the state would save $20 million in avoided costs over two years if the diversion is approved.

The decision will be up to the General Assembly.

Kasich’s budget plan would expand an eight-county pilot project that has been operating for four months. Ross County, a pilot participant, will receive $328,346 to take care of fifth-degree felons locally rather than sending them to Mohr’s prisons, where they would typically serve six months to a year.

Ross County Common Pleas Court Judge Scott W. Nusbaum said, “It’s too early to issue a conclusion as to how effective it is, but it’s worth a try as a pilot program. The jury is still out.”

Nusbaum has used the state money to hire an in-house drug-treatment and employment case manager, a community service director, and a pretrial manager to determine the best way to handle nonviolent offenders locally.

“One of the first steps to rehabilitation is to find people some meaningful employment,” Nusbaum said. Most people he’s dealing with have been convicted of low-level drug charges, either possession or trafficking.

If Nusbaum sends one of the qualifying offenders to a state prison, the county is penalized $68 per day. That’s an incentive to keep them in local programs, he said.

“A frustration that I have,” the judge said, “is when you have a repeat offender, continually arrested for low felony level of possession or trafficking, I can’t send them to prison.”

The other counties in the pilot program and the amount allocated are Clinton County, $199,092; Williams, Henry, Defiance, Fulton and Lucas counties (a collaboration), $1,448,128; and Medina County, $521,968.

Mohr said this is the biggest reform since he became director in 2011.

The pilot program is responsible for a drop of about 300 inmates from a year ago, when 50,420 were in state prisons, Mohr said. The statewide count last week was 50,119.
Alan Johnson, The Columbus Dispatch, February 27, 2017
Ohio may pay counties to take inmates off its hands