Ohio combines sentencing reform and community corrections to rein in prison budget

Ohio provides a remarkable example of policy reforms and investments in community-based alternative programs can yield correctional cost savings. State policymakers have managed to reduce the state's prison population by more than 5,000, allowing closure of two prisons, and saving taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

One Midwestern state provides a remarkable example of how comprehensive policy reforms and substantial investments in community-based alternative programs can, over time, yield huge correctional cost savings. In 1996 Ohio legislators embraced "truth-in-sentencing" when they enacted Senate Bill 2. They abolished parole release and established a system of flat sentences. They also provided a system of sentencing guidance for judges grounded on basic principles which are developed and enforced by appellate review.

Ohio's experience is particularly notable because, as they restructured the sentencing system, state policymakers rejected the numerical grid concept used by sentencing guidelines states to shape judicial discretion. Legislators established the overriding purposes of felony sentencing (public protection and punishment) and provided basic guiding principles and presumptions that set limits on how the sentencing purposes may be achieved. Judges are required to give reasons for their sentencing decisions. The system is enforced by appellate review.

The new sentencing structure was designed to steer more serious, chronic felons to prison while channeling the others to community sanctions. One important principle is conservation of public resources. Under S.B. 2 the most serious offenses (first and second-degree felonies) carry a presumption of imprisonment, while for fourth and fifth-degree felonies the presumption favors a community-based sanction. The structure was also designed to discourage unnecessarily lengthy prison terms. Accordingly, a first-time prison sentence will normally be set at the bottom of the sentence range set for the offense, while the maximum term is to be reserved for the "worst form of the offense," or for defendants that "pose the greatest likelihood of committing future crime."

S.B. 2 authorized a broad array of community-based sanctions that allow judges to tailor a sentence that may include residence in a community-based correctional facility or halfway house, or require participation in a day-reporting program, electronic monitoring, house arrest, or intensive probation supervision. The objectives of S.B. 2 have been strongly reinforced by provision of increased funding for community-based programs. More than $9 million was added to the state correctional budget for these programs in 1996, the year S.B. 2 was enacted. Since then the community-based program budget has doubled, totaling more than $111 million in the current fiscal year.

The new sentencing structure has helped to re-adjust the mix in Ohio's prison, tilting the population toward individuals with long criminal records and those convicted of violent crimes. Since 1996 the proportion of people sentenced to prison with no convictions for violent crime (current or prior) has steadily declined. At the same time, the share of total prison admissions made up of African Americans has slowly, but consistently, declined.

Prisoners are allowed a modest amount of "earned time," one day per month, provided they are able to meet a prison program requirement. In the absence of parole, Ohio's judges retain an extra margin of discretionary jurisdiction over the prison sentences they impose. They are able to grant a prisoner's release from prison, typically within 18 months to two years of the end of their sentence. In fiscal year 2004 judges granted 1,740 release petitions.

In 1998 the Ohio Adult Parole Authority adopted new parole guidelines that dramatically changed the handling of prisoners sentenced before the guidelines reform took effect. The parole guidelines grid consists of 13 levels of offense severity and a criminal history/risk formula used to score the likelihood of recidivism at four levels of risk. At the intersection of the two scores, the grid provides a range of months for determining the amount of time a prisoner must serve before being released.

Once in place, the parole guidelines intensified the population shifts begun under the sentencing reform, with low-level, nonviolent prisoners gaining parole in record numbers. In December 2002 a decision rendered by the Ohio Supreme Court further stepped up parole eligibility for many "old law" prisoners.

For "new-law" prisoners (those sentenced under S.B. 2) the parole board retains discretion to impose "post-release control," typically three years of post-prison supervision. Of the 28,679 prisoners released in fiscal year 2004, 7,818 were slated for post-release control supervision. The parole board can also order "transitional control" of a prisoner for up to 180 days of pre-parole release, typically to a halfway house. In fiscal year 2004, 1,794 prisoners were granted a transitional-control release.

The combination of structured reforms at both the "front end" and the "back end" has worked to stabilize Ohio's correctional system and to reduce the state's prison population by more than 5,000, allowing closure of two prisons, and saving taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

Comparing violent crime and incarceration trends in Ohio and Wisconsin since S.B. 2 was adopted provides an interesting contrast. In line with national trends, violent crime declined in both states over this period. Ohio has enjoyed a slightly larger measure of relief, a 19-percent reduction, compared to 17 percent in Wisconsin.

Yet through the same period Wisconsin's incarceration rate increased by 70 percent, while Ohio managed to reduce reliance on incarceration, winning substantial savings in prison costs.

Ohio and Wisconsin incarceration rates: 1996-2004

Excerpted from Treatment Instead of Prisons: A Roadmap for Sentencing and Correctional Policy Reform in Wisconsin.