Ohio will always need large prisons to house its worst criminal offenders, but a goal should always be to make prisons less crowded.
After years of trying to reverse prison population trends, primarily by forcing judges to keep low-level felons at “home,” the numbers are declining, and recently have dropped below 50,000 for the first time in four years.
But even with 49,596 inmates, the statewide tally from Tuesday, the prison system is bloated and at about 130 percent of capacity. An overcrowded prison system is an accident waiting to happen.
State officials have no other choice but to continue to encourage local governments to make use of diversion, early release and other community-based rehabilitation programs to drive the inmate number even lower.
Yet, the state can’t have it both ways. Even if a goal is to reduce the prison population, and save money by doing so, the state must still help pay the cost to rehabilitate criminals in communities.
The cost to house an inmate runs about $68 per day in Ohio. The cost to run community control programs is less than half that, but is rising as more and more offenders are sentenced to community control sanctions.
During budget discussions this week in Hancock County, it was reported that more probation officers, the people who have the task of making sure those on community control comply with all the court-imposed rules, are needed. That need has risen along with Ohio’s opioid problems.
County probation officers once had an average caseload of about 20. Today, the number exceeds 70. The state provides about 60 percent of the probation department’s budget, but may need to contribute more to help communities facing growing caseloads.
Ohio will always need prisons for murderers, rapists and other violent offenders who can’t be rehabilitated. But the majority of criminals are worth saving.
That can best be done in communities where an offender has the support of family and justice system professionals who have an interest in reducing recidivism.
The state must continue to allow local governments to develop best practices for rehabilitation without attaching too many strings to grants and funding. A one-size-fits-all solution isn’t possible with rehabilitation. What works in Cuyahoga County may not work in Hancock County.
The majority of the rehabilitation that takes place in Ohio doesn’t occur within prison walls, but within communities where the crime occurs. The money saved by housing fewer inmates at the state level must be passed on to county governments to develop effective community control programs, including reintegration.
Ohio will always be better off beefing up rehabilitation than overfilling its prisons or, worse yet, building new ones.