COLUMBUS – Ohio lawmakers are working to address problems in the state’s criminal justice system, but some advocacy groups say the time for modest, incremental steps is over.
Stephen Johnsongrove, deputy director for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center explains there are 50,600 people locked up in Ohio – about the same number as five years ago, when a criminal justice reform package was signed into law.
He says a new report from the center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio presents dramatic steps to reduce the overcrowding and racial disparities plaguing the state’s prisons.
“Black men in particular are facing a one-in-three chance in their lifetime of being incarcerated,” says Johnsongrove. “That can’t be normalized, and we are trying to call that out and specifically, give targeted responses that deal with the overpopulation of our prison system.”
A Criminal Justice Recodification Committee is charged with making recommendations to change the criminal code by August.
The report recommends several steps for the committee to consider, including eliminating harsh, automatic punishments, releasing innocent people from jail, and prioritizing rehabilitation.
Other suggestions include decriminalizing poverty by ending financial sanctions and debt punishments.
Johnsongrove lists other recommendations that address what happens after a person is released.
“Reducing collateral consequences, which has to do with all the barriers people face after prison and jail,” he says. “And then, reforming community control and parole, making sure people are released intelligently, when it’s safe and smart, instead of just ‘recycling’ and keeping people locked up when they don’t need to be.”
While some state leaders believe major changes will result from the committee’s work, Johnsongrove contends so far, it has only been examining ways to make the criminal code more clear and consistent.
“Better grammar is not going to make us safer,” he insists. “Better grammar is not going to shrink this mass-incarceration crisis. So, better grammar is a good thing to do, but a larger policy goal needs to be driving this committee.”
Ohio’s prison population ranks sixth-highest among states.