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Report: State Lawmakers Hurting Efforts To Reduce Prison Population

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Policy groups on the right and left say Ohio lawmakers are undermining attempts to reduce the state's prison population by continuing to introduce tough-on-crime bills that put more people behind bars. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union backed by several organizations says lawmakers introduced 54 bills in the first six months of the current session that would send more people to jail or prison as a committee works on multiple changes to the state criminal code that could reduce the prison population. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

Cutting down on the number of people sent to prison has become a big issue for Ohio leaders. A bipartisan group is working on finding other, more effective ways to penalize and rehabilitate lawbreakers.  
 
This effort might also result in determining which laws are redundant or unnecessary.  
 
But Mike Brickner with the American Civil Liberties Union points out that the biggest opponents Ohio lawmakers face on this issue might be themselves.  
 
“We also have legislators who continue to introduce laws that expand our criminal justice system,” said Brickner.  
 
A report from the ACLU shows that, in the first six months of 2015, lawmakers drafted 54 bills that would create more criminal laws and increase prison time.  
 
That means for every 10 bills introduced in the House and Senate so far this year, at least one sent more people behind bars.  
 
Brickner called on the General Assembly to put an end to these bills until a panel studying the state’s criminal code completes its work to reform the system.  
 
This call was backed by the fiscal conservative group the Buckeye Institute, along with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender and the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  
 
That group’s Barry Wilford said all of those bills introduced so far can wait.  
 
“Now I’ve looked over the list that are in this report and I didn’t see a single bill that I thought Ohio’s public safety is in danger if this bill does not advance,” Wilford said.  
 
That list spans all types of issues and offenses. For example, several bills deal with the mishandling of firearms, some add criminal charges for certain abortions, and others expand penalties for traffic offenses.  
 
The ACLU and Buckeye Institute normally don’t agree on much, but on this issue, they say there’s a need for a change in attitude toward these kinds of bills.  
 
When talking about criminal justice reform, leaders say they need to change the “there outta be a law” mindset. This is when legislators or constituents hear about a tragedy or shortcoming and believe the best thing to do is to fix it through a new law.  
 
The ACLU’s Gary Daniels says this can be a slippery slope.  
 
“But it becomes what we say in our report, it’s death by a thousand cuts because 50 people here and 25 people there and 10 people there starts to, of course, really add up,” said Daniels.  
 
The ACLU says Ohio has the seventh largest prison population in the country, with more than 50,000 people behind bars.  
 
Robert Alt with the Buckeye Institute says changing the culture includes changing what voters demand from their elected officials.  
 
“In many ways the legislators try to be responsive to their constituents and they feel like if they can demonstrate that they’re taking their constituents concerns seriously by enacting a new crime they will. And so I think this is a process of public education as well as education of the legislators,” Alt said.  
 
Republican House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger was asked about the report and the number of bills that have been introduced that add to the criminal code. He said introducing a bill is just one step, next those bills go through the committee process where the lawmakers can decide if a change is actually needed.  
 
“We think it’s a good bill and we think it’s something that’s going to be helpful for the 11 and a half million citizens you can count on, I’m not going to wait, we’re gonna do it,” said Rosenberger.  
 
The speaker added that he supports the work of the recodification committee and looks forward to seeing its report.  
 
That report is expected next August.  
 

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