February 13, 2009 -- Columbus Dispatch (OH)
Prisons Director Demands Reforms
State Lawmakers Urged To Alter Sentencing Laws To Help With Crowding
By Alan Johnson
The head of Ohio's prison system gave state legislators a no-nonsense budget talk yesterday, saying, "We've lost the war on drugs, yet we keep sending people to state prisons."
Terry Collins, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, made an impassioned plea for sentencing reforms to divert more offenders from overcrowded state prisons and ease the burden on the financially strapped system.
The alternative: closing another prison in 2011, Collins told a House committee reviewing the state budget.
"We are at a critical and urgent stage," he said.
The director said state prisons are bulging with 32 percent more inmates than they are designed to hold, and the population will hit 60,000 in the next decade unless changes are made. It was 50,719 on Monday.
Gov. Ted Strickland's two-year budget proposes spending a total of $3.65 billion in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to operate prisons, community-corrections facilities and halfway houses funded by the state. Collins said the proposed budget, though large, will require cutting about 500 positions from his payroll.
The Strickland administration's blueprint recommends a package of changes to sentencing laws, including allowing inmates to accumulate seven days a month of "earned credit" to reduce their sentences if they participate in education and treatment programs.
That and other proposed reforms would, over time, save $29.1 million and shrink the prison population by 6,736 annually, the governor's budget estimated.
"We cannot continue to believe the only option is to punish people by sending them to prison," Collins said. "We need to stop sending people to prison who we are just 'mad at.' ... Prison beds should be maintained for those who are just plain 'bad.' "
Collins warned that if the reforms are not enacted, he will have no option but to close another prison to save money.
Then-Gov. Bob Taft ordered the Lima and Orient correctional institutions closed in 2002-03.
Legislators did not grill Collins about his proposal, although several questioned the idea of mixing sentencing reform and budget proposals.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, introduced separate legislation Wednesday that included most of the sentencing proposals advocated by Strickland and Collins. Seitz said the sentencing reforms in Senate Bill 22 are "too critical to the stability of our prison system" to wait on passage by July 1 as part of the state budget.
Seitz's bill contains only one significant apparent change from Strickland's proposal: It would allow inmates to received "earned credit" for five days per month rather than seven.
Both proposals would exclude sex offenders and certain others from receiving earned credit.
Contact Alan Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org