Ohio lawmakers received a joint call Wednesday to curb their tough-on-crime sentiment until a potentially sweeping overhaul of the state’s criminal code is complete.
Legislators are undermining efforts to reform sentencing laws and decrease prison and jail populations by continuing to introduce bills creating new crimes and enhancing prison sentences, critics said.
“We have to stop growing our mass-incarceration system,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, and allow the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee to suggest top-to-bottom changes.
The committee is examining potential reforms to criminal laws that could result in shorter sentences and fewer people going to prison for nonviolent drug crimes is expected to be completed next summer.
A few hours after Wednesday's ACLU-hosted news conference, the Ohio House unanimously passed a bill that could send a few more people to prison.
House members voted to expand the offense of menacing by stalking to include online cyber-stalking, toughen the telecommunications harassment law and make it a fourth-degree felony to assault an on-duty volunteer firefighter.
Lawmakers introduced 54 bills in the House and Senate during the first six months of this year to send more people to overcrowded prisons and jails, according to a report released on Wednesday by the ACLU.
The bills range from making it a crime to perform an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected to using a remotely controlled drone to perform a criminal act, such as dropping contraband inside a prison.
“If there are good bills and we've got members in a bipartisan way who think it's something we should do, we're going to take it up,” said House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, R-Clarksville. “But I don't hear an outcry of members saying let's pass 30 or 40 bills in this sector.”
Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, who led the effort to create the Recodification Committee, said the legislature needs to be careful about passing new penalties in certain areas, but that doesn't mean a blanket hold on criminal-justice legislation.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “We'll pass the things we believe are appropriate … and ask the Recodification Committee to take that into consideration,” Faber said.
Joining the ACLU’s call for lawmakers to stop creating new crimes were the Ohio public defender’s office, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions.
Gary Daniels, the ACLU of Ohio’s chief lobbyist, said none of the pending 54 bills before the General Assembly pose a danger to public safety if they fail to pass. Both Republicans and Democrats alike have filed legislation, he said.
He pointed out Ohioans are paying an all-too-high price for a justice system that sends too many nonviolent offenders to prison, wrecking both their families’ lives and the state budget.
Ohio’s prison population stands at 50,282 — 30-percent above designed capacity — and less than 1,000 below the all-time high set in 2008. The state spends $1.8 billion a year on its prisons at a daily cost of $62.57 for each inmate. The average prisoner spends about two years and four months in prison.
The state’s prison population has continued to grow despite an ongoing decrease in Ohio’s crime rate. The number of inmates climbed by 17 percent between 1994 and 2012 while the crime rate dropped 23 percent, one study found.