Going to jail

Treating felony offenders locally rather than sending them to prison could eventually result in funding incentives for the court systems in each Ohio county.

In an effort to address Ohio’s steadily rising prison population, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction suggests implementing a funding model similar to the Juvenile Court’s RECLAIM Ohio system, which gives grant funding to county juvenile courts based on how many of their youth felony offenders are sentenced-or rather not sentenced- to state facilities.

“Because (RECLAIM) is a benchmark people are familiar with, we’re asking ‘Can that type of model be incorporated into an adult correctional setting?’ said Sara Andrews, DRC managing director of court and community.

RECLAIM, or Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to the Incarceration of Minors, works by allocating a lump sum of grant funding to county juvenile systems to use for local treatment programs. But a portion of that funding is reduced when the courts sentence juvenile felony offenders to state juvenile correctional facilities or community correctional facilities. Juveniles sentenced to state facilities for crimes such as kidnapping, rape, murder, or arson do not affect the funding model.

Proponents say the funding model would give common pleas courts money for local treatment options. But many, including the judges responsible for adjudicating felony cases worry the program would be akin to bribing judges to keep felons out of prison.

“I think what’s driving this whole thing is not about protecting the public. It’s not about rehabilitating offenders. It’s about saving money,” said Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane.

If the juvenile model is any indication, the funding program would certainly save the state money.

According to a 2005 University of Cincinnati cost-benefit analysis of RECLAIM funded programs and state juvenile detention facilities, RECLAIM saved Ohio as much as $45 for each $1 invested while improving public safety.

The program is also credited with decreasing the state juvenile detention population by 80 percent since its introduction in 1995.

But there is some concern that if implemented for adults offenders the program will force judges to make a tough choice about sending offenders where they need to be and securing the money. In the juvenile system, it has caused some judges to model their sentencing practices after their budgeting needs, said Washington County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Williams.

“I don’t worry about the money. But so many courts rely on that money to operate their budgets,” said Williams.

The monetary incentive has led some juvenile courts to hold off on any DYS sentences until they are far enough into the fiscal year that they know they have secured the funding they need, he said.

Unlike the juvenile courts, which lost other funding when RECLAIM went into operation, the DRC officials are hoping a similar adult model would not defund any current projects.

“We’re hoping that it would be new dollars used to implement this project,” said Andrews, who noted that the funding model is in the very early stages of consideration.

The hope is that the department could roll out a pilot program in a few select counties using currently unallocated funding, and secure additional funding to run the model in the long term, she said.

No legislation would be needed to start the pilot program but in order for the state to adopt the plan, a bill would have to be passed by the Ohio legislature. Currently DRC officials are meeting with legislators and other stakeholders to prepare for that process.

The adult courts model can be tweaked to specifically address fourth- and fifth-degree felony, which currently make up 14 percent of Ohio’s prison population, said Andrews.

Despite 2011 legislation designed to curb Ohio’s prison population, Ohio prisons clocked in at 130 percent of capacity in September and without new legislation that number will continue to rise through at least 2019, according to estimates from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Bureau of Research and Evaluation.

“The idea is to give counties more alternatives than prison. Trying to develop those local resources,” said Andrews.

Marietta resident Brandon Robinson, 30, said he can see the merit in keeping offenders out of prisons.

“Prison is like a school for criminals. They meet new contacts, have a lot of time to think about their crimes and how not to get caught,” he said.

The funding could be put to good use locally, specifically if it were used for programs that helped felons get job training and reintegrated into the community, he said.

Some expressed concern that rural communities do not benefit as much from the funding because it is harder to develop alternative treatment programs.

“Washington County would likely get the short end of the stick,” said Marietta resident John Grimes.

In actuality, Washington County historically has not gotten any of the stick when it comes to RECLAIM funding, said Williams. In fact, Washington County has not received a single penny from RECLAIM funding since 1997, he said.

The county was one of 17 to forfeit all of their RECLAIM allocation for the 2013 fiscal year.

For the year, Williams sent six of 10 felony juvenile offenders to a state facility.

That is a stark contrast to many counties. For example, Butler County sent 11 of their 162 juvenile felony offenders to a state facility-less than seven percent.

All of the youth Williams send to state facilities have exhausted a variety of other treatment options including time in the local juvenile detention facility and counseling, he said.

“The kids I send to DYS, there is no other option for me. They are dangerous,” he said.

While Washington County is not benefiting from any RECLAIM dollars, some counties are profiting. Franklin County received more than $2 million in RECLAIM allocations last year. Hamilton County received more than $4 million.

The funding seems to translates into reduced recidivism-a goal of the DRC. The juvenile offenders benefiting from RECLAIM programming had a 20 percent recidivism rate compared to a 50 percent recidivism rate among those sentenced and released from a DYS facility.