October 6, 2014 at 10:23 am

Case File: Ohio’s Criminal Justice Reforms and Prisoner Re-entry

Handcuffed Hands

By Larry Hayman
Ohio University Pre-Law Specialist, Center for Law, Justice & Culture

As the U.S. Supreme Court reconvenes this week, it does so under a staggering statistic. Though the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, that nation accounts for over 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Indeed, as the world’s largest incarcerator of its people, the United states has 716 out of every 100,000 people in prison. This amounts to approximately 2.3 million of our fellow Americans. Our common law cousins fare much better: the United Kingdom ranks 17th, Canada ranks 45th, and Australia ranks 48th.

chart showing U.S. accounts for 5% of world's popultion and 25% of its prisonersHousing these prisoners, many of whom are locked up for non-violent crimes, is not cheap, especially in a time that most governments are cash strapped. Moreover, depending on methodology and geographical location considered, housing an inmate costs anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000.

Recognizing this, and other issues, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law a number of criminal justice reforms in 2011 and 2012. Among the most significant were HB 86 and SB 337. HB 86 sought to reduce recidivism by increasing rehabilitative treatment, improving education and teaching employment skills to low-level, non-violent offenders. The legislation was designed to keep offenders out of prison and to make them productive members of society. Before its enactment, one of the main goals of the criminal justice system was to punish the person. HB 86 focused on rehabilitation through substance-abuse prevention, education and job-training programs. It also reduced the severity of offenses and effectively removed prison as an option for judges to impose prison terms for certain, low-level offenders. (Some of this discretion was given back to judges in certain situations under SB 160 two years later.)

The next year, recognizing the issues related to re-entry once an offender got out of prison, on June 26, 2012, Gov. Kasich signed Senate Bill 337, changing Ohio law related to expungement and sealing of criminal records. The new expungement law changes what convictions can be sealed and who is eligible to apply for their record to be sealed. Now, more former offenders in Ohio will be eligible for expungement. Being able to expunge records will allow more former offenders to attain better employment opportunities, since expungement will seal the criminal record.

Because these new laws have taken effect only within the last couple of years, it is not yet clear if they are having their desired result of rehabilitation and of integrating former offenders back into society. Over time, legislators, judges, advocates of reform, and law enforcement officials remain hopeful that less Ohioans will be incarcerated, and less crimes will be committed.

Making and Breaking the Law logoTo learn more about these issues, please attend Re-Entry in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A panel discussion of challenges of life after incarceration, which will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 7, from 5 to 7 p.m. in Baker 231.  The Center for Law, Justice & Culture and the Making & Breaking the Law curricular theme are co-hosting this event.

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