Ohio lawmakers hope for bipartisan reform of prison system stressed by COVID-19

Ohio lawmakers, lobbyists and researchers of various political stripes are finding a common cause in prison reform.

Bipartisan efforts to reform the troubled system have preceded the outbreak of COVID-19, but the virus has thrown the need for change into stark relief.

Across Ohio’s prison system, more than 4,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 40 inmates and two staff members have died.

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The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has a current inmate population of nearly 50,000, about 10,000 above capacity. Already cramped living conditions have been exacerbated and stressed by a virus that has forced 39,000 inmates into quarantine, according to ODRC data.

“When you have organizations across the political and ideological spectrum saying, oftentimes, identical things about mass incarceration – it makes people take notice.”

— Gary Daniels, ACLU of Ohio lobbyist.

The prison system has long been scrutinized by the left for its overcrowding problem. Now, with the system wracked by a deadly virus, conservative lawmakers are turning a critical eye to the status quo.

“When you have organizations across the political and ideological spectrum saying, oftentimes, identical things about mass incarceration – it makes people take notice,” said Gary Daniels, a lobbyist with the ACLU of Ohio.

Daniels said that communication and occasional collaboration between Ohio’s various think-tanks and lobbying organizations is common, but public displays of bipartisanship can turn the head of lawmakers.

Two such displays are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3, which would allow for intervention in lieu of conviction and reform drug sentencing laws, respectively,

The bills contain changes widely agreed upon as common-sense reforms to Ohio’s criminal justice system. Both would put fewer people behind bars for minor criminal infractions, allowing for rehabilitation and community monitoring for crimes that don’t merit incarceration.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about what needs to be done, but you don’t see it resulting in change via the legislature.”

— Gary Daniels, ACLU of Ohio lobbyist.

H.B. 1 passed the Ohio House of Representatives 91-6. S.B. 3 has yet to be voted on by the state senate.

Still, bipartisan acknowledgment of a problem doesn’t always prompt bipartisan legislative action. Solutions can languish in the statehouse for months while lawmakers debate the finer points. Sometimes party lines won’t be moved.

“There’s a disconnect there between what they’re saying oftentimes and what they do when they have a chance to do something about it,” Daniels said. “There’s a lot of rhetoric about what needs to be done, but you don’t see it resulting in change via the legislature.”

“We have more prisoners than we have jails for, we keep passing more and more laws, we have to really clean it up. And I think all sides agree on that. We just have too many people in prisons.”

— Ohio Republican Rep. Diane Grendell.

Cooperation between think tanks and policy advocacy organizations can be a prelude to lawmakers taking up a cause in committee. Rep. Diane Grendell, a Republican lawmaker from northern Ohio and former Court of Appeals judge, sits on the Ohio House Criminal Justice committee and anticipates seeing prison reform enacted reasonably soon.

“We have failed in our prison system,” Grendell said. “We have more prisoners than we have jails for, we keep passing more and more laws, we have to really clean it up. And I think all sides agree on that. We just have too many people in prisons.”

Ohio state Rep. Diane Grendell (R-76).

Ohio state Rep. Diane Grendell (R-76).

Grendell’s attitude has been increasingly embraced by right-leaning groups, some of whom have come out in support of S.B. 3.

“I think that the commonality is that we all know there’s a problem there,” said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the right-leaning Buckeye Institute. “Getting the strange bedfellows together is always a good thing.”

The Buckeye Institute has long lobbied for fiscally conservative policies. Recently, those policies have included criminal justice reform like S.B. 3. Lawson said prisons are the state’s third-largest budget item behind Medicaid and education.

The Buckeye Institute has backed prison reform bills alongside liberal groups like Policy Matters Ohio and the libertarian Americans for Prosperity.

“I think that what you’ll see is that everybody will probably come together to say we need to get some kind of resource to parents. … You’re seeing the beginnings of what could be a coalition.”

— Greg Lawson, research fellow with the Buckey Institute.

Lawson said the challenges of COVID-19 and the necessity for cooperation in solving  them gives him hope for more political coalitions that will benefit Ohioans outside of the prison system. One such area of commonality may be providing childcare or financial relief for families and parents as the economy transitions out of the pandemic downturn.

“I think that what you’ll see is that everybody will probably come together to say we need to get some kind of resource to parents,” Lawson said. “I think that’s something that’s going to be looked at more. … You’re seeing the beginnings of what could be a coalition.”

Ohio Rep. Erica Crawley, a Democrat from southeastern Columbus, isn’t as hopeful about a new era of bipartisanship in Ohio, though she does recognize the likelihood of criminal justice reform.

Ohio Congresswoman Erica Crawley (D-26).

Ohio Congresswoman Erica Crawley (D-26).

“The pandemic has really brought those concerns and conversations to the forefront,” she said. “… We are having a really substantive conversation about rehabilitation. Obviously, we can’t lock inmates up and get out of this drug problem.”

For years, Ohio has been at the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic, with the state prison and county jail systems bearing the brunt of the resulting increase in incarceration.

“I don’t know where the blame is to be laid. Where we can see a failure though is in rehabilitation [programs] that we have not seen in the prisons for decades.”

— Ohio Democratic Rep. Erica Crawley.

As the swollen prison system recovers from a virus that has circulated widely among staff and inmates at a vast majority of facilities, Crawley said she expects there to be oversight and accountability efforts. Some of the problems, she said, go back decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations.

“I don’t know where the blame is to be laid,” she said. “Where we can see a failure though is in rehabilitation [programs] that we have not seen in the prisons for decades.”

Crawley said current reform efforts are good, but don’t go far enough. She said the bills under consideration wouldn’t do enough to mitigate the prison population enough to matter if the state were struck with a future pandemic.

“Right now, we have over 15,000 inmates who are considered low-level, nonviolent offenders,” Crawley said. “A lot of those are drug convictions. S.B. 3 would still allow people to be incarcerated for small amounts of drugs.

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“Until we have consensus and local court policy guidelines, we’re going to continue to see the same problems. If we have another pandemic, we’re going to be in the same position.”

A spokesperson for the ODRC said in a statement that the prison population is at its lowest point since 2006, and that the agency supports expanded mental health programs to help address issues before someone is incarcerated.

“Any reduction in the prison population must be with community safety as priority  and not just simply based on numbers alone,” the statement read in part. “This is why very specific criteria has been used throughout the COVID pandemic to look at individuals for potential early release who pose the least threat to reoffend.”

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