Monday, May 28, 2001

Prison expenses straining budget


Some lawmakers consider alternatives to incarceration

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Faced with a weakening economy and a Supreme Court mandate to fix public schools, some lawmakers are questioning whether Ohio can afford to keep locking up drug users or other nonviolent offenders.

        In the last decade, the state has built 12 prisons, hired 7,200 prison workers and increased spending on the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction by 191 percent — from $480 million in 1991 to $1.4 billion today.

        But the boom times for prisons are ending.

        The legislature this year cut $24.8 million from the prison budget and plans to cut another $55 million in 2002. Legislators such as state Rep. Gary Cates, who is second in command in the Ohio House, say the state must use more halfway houses and other alternative programs for nonviolent criminals to slow the exploding prison budget.

        Ohio spends $22,146 a year to house each of its 45,000 inmates.

        “When you look at the cost of incarcerating people you realize how much more that department is gobbling out of the budget,” said Mr. Cates, R-West Chester. “We have to do a better job of rehabilitating people. It's

        cheaper.”

        Ohio is not the only state looking to consider easing a budget crunch by cutting prison costs. Several states, including Idaho, Louisiana, Connecticut and Tennessee, are examining how they punish criminals, especially non-violent ones.

        Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne this year said his state should stop building prisons and start building drug treatment and rehabilitation centers. Lawmakers in Hartford, Conn., are considering measures to divert mentally ill prisoners into treatment programs and give judges more discretion in sentencing drug users.

        In Louisiana, senators — saying the state had lost control of its prison population — voted this month to end mandatory prison time for non-violent criminals and reduce sentences for drug possession.

        “More and more people are realizing you can't just keep locking up people for longer periods of time. It's a very expensive proposition,” said Jenni Gainsborough, spokeswoman for the Sentencing Project, a non-profit Washington, D.C., group that advocates changes in sentencing laws.

        Ms. Gainsborough said states need to examine alternative punishments, such as sentencing people convicted of fraud to repay their victims. “Serious violent offenders need to be off the streets,” Ms. Gainsborough said. “But a high number of people in prison don't need to be there.”

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, agrees. He favors spending more money on intensive drug and alcohol treatment in Ohio prisons — a move he believes would save money in the long run. Just 15 of Ohio's 34 prisons provide residential drug and alcohol programs.

        “Here we've got a captive audience and doggone it, we ought to be trying to change them,” Mr. Finan said.

        Mr. Finan also wants to:

        • Provide college courses via the Internet to inmates.

        • Put more prisoners to work refurbishing tires for school buses and performing similar factory jobs.

        He said such programs would save money because inmates who learn job skills are less likely to return to prison. About 32 percent of inmates released in Ohio end up back behind bars.

        “Right now they come out of prison with no ability to get a job, so where can they make money? They go back to the streets,” Mr. Finan said. “We've go to do something. The mentality in the prison system is they are not as much into correction as they are incarceration.”

        Prison officials respond that talk of rehabilitating inmates sounds good but requires money.

        Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said budget cutbacks are actually forcing the prison system to move in the opposite direction: Forcing the closure of pre-release programs, for example, that help inmates complete resumes and learn interviewing skills before they are set free.

        The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association warns the cutbacks — which require the department to eliminate 600 jobs through layoffs or attrition — could also come with dire consequences. Union officials noted it took the 1993 Lucasville prison riots to convince state officials to build more prisons and hire more prison guards to ease overcrowding.

        At that time, Ohio had one guard for every 8.5 inmates but that figure has since improved to one guard for every 5.3 inmates.

        “One of the things we got after the riots in Lucasville was recognition we were understaffed and overcrowded. We went from one of the worst systems in the nation to one of the best,” said Peter Wray, spokesman for the union.

        He said the proposed cuts will send the prison system backward.

        “We're damned unhappy and we are saying loud and clear this is dangerous,” Mr. Wray said. “We can't be beefing up criminal laws and then say, "Let's cut the prison budget.'”

        Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged that the number of people behind bars has actually decreased in Ohio — down about 3,800 prisoners from all all-time high of 49,071 in August 1998. But he noted that inmates are staying behind bars years longer, thanks to laws increasing minimum sentences for a number of crimes, including those committed with a weapon.

        “Either we lock inmates up for as long as we can and just let them out when their sentences are up, guaranteeing their return to prison,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “Or, we give them mental health services, drug counseling and other things they need.

        “We can't have it both ways.”

        Joe Andrews, spokesman for the department, added that ideas such as helping inmates obtain degrees so they don't return to prison sound good but are difficult to carry out. The federal government no longer gives Pell grants to inmates, he said, and the state legislature has eliminated other grants.

        “There are studies that show if we can turn out educated inmates, it's less likely they will come back but the money involved is a problem,” Mr. Andrews said.

        In addition, Mr. Andrews said, the department has had to cough up funds to cover negotiated pay raises for unionized prison guards and pay down its debt on all the new prisons.

        Despite the hurdles, lawmakers say they are determined to try to get a handle on prison spending. Don Berno, president of the Ohio Expenditure Council, points out they have few other choices.

        The state spends more on the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Department of Youth Services, which houses juvenile offenders, than any other single budget item except education and health care.

        “If you are going to deal with school funding, by default you are going to have to start looking at one of three things,” Mr. Berno said. “Higher education, corrections or (raising) tax revenues.”

       



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