Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

New Study: Ohio’s Prison System a “Costly ‘Revolving Door'”

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Ohio’s prisons are packed with low-level property and drug offenders serving sentences of just a few weeks or months, who could more cost-effectively be sentenced to probation, according to a newly released report from the Council of State Governments. The study compared Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) with Franklin County (Columbus) and found significant differences in the rates at which low-level offenders were sentenced to prison. As summarized by the Plain Dealer:

• Cuyahoga’s 34 common pleas court judges sentenced 51 percent of fourth-degree felony offenders to probation. In Franklin County … 63 percent of fourth-degree felons received probation.

• Cuyahoga sentenced 66 percent of less-serious fifth-degree felons to probation, compared to Franklin County’s 82 percent.

• Had Cuyahoga judges sentenced low-level felons to probation at the same rate as judges in Franklin County, 1,060 fewer people would have been sent to prison.

The report also notes that Ohio’s community corrections programs do not have clear eligibility criteria, and that its probation system is “a patchwork of independent agencies” with inconsistent policies. The study was conducted by the Council of State Governments through its Justice Reinvestment initiative, which pairs expert consultants with state policymakers to consult on criminal justice reform (and which, incidentally, has a lot of interesting resources on its website).

This report highlights the highly local and, frankly, haphazard nature of the decision-making processes that perpetuate mass incarceration. It is certainly troubling to think about all the inmates who may have avoided prison altogether had sentencing standards been more uniform across jurisdictions. But in an odd way, I find this report to be encouraging. It bolsters my hypothesis that mass incarceration is not something that American voters and policymakers expressly decided to pursue; rather, it may have been the tragic and largely accidental result of the accretion of countless smaller-bore policy choices and discretionary and often arbitrary applications of the law untethered to any coherent overarching policy framework other than a very vague “tough-on-crime” sensibility. By making visible to voters and policymakers the consequences that have flowed from their decisions of the past 30 years — consequences that may well have been unintended — studies like this one open up a space for reform advocates to frame their proposals as common-sense fixes, necessary for restoring basic fairness and fiscal sanity.

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