ACLU Presents a Six-Part Plan to the Prison-Reform Committee

Mar 23, 2016

The Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee will present its findings for prison reform to the state General Assembly by Aug. 1.
Credit MICHAEL COGHLAN / FLICKR CC

While the election may be driving a divide between and even inside political parties, conservatives and liberals in Ohio continue to work on one issue together. As Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow reports, one group has released a comprehensive report to try and tackle criminal justice reform.

More than 50,000 people are in Ohio prisons. That’s down from an all-time high of more than 51,000 in 2008. But leaders from all over the political spectrum believe something needs to be done to cut down further on the prison population.

Republicans and Democrats have pledged to reform the criminal justice system and to look at different ways to rehabilitate people without sending them to prison. They’re doing that through the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.

Several groups are reaching out to the task force to offer their opinions, and the ACLU is adding to its stance on the issue by releasing a new report.

Mike Brickner of the Ohio ACLU presents six recommendations to the committee overseeing prison reform.
Credit ANDY CHOW / OPR

The group’s Mike Brickner says it’s all about reevaluating the entire system.

“Is it just going to be a system of punishment or are we trying to restore people back into the community.”

Brickner and other advocates say the criminal justice system needs to focus on rehabilitation efforts.

“We’re much better serviced if we send people back out in the community who have actually been restored and not just focus on punishing them for a crime. So much of our criminal-justice system is based on being tough on crime," says Brickner. 

"We need to move towards a system that is smarter on crime (in which) we’re actually helping those people who are being incarcerated.”

Brickner says the ACLU’s report moves towards that goal of being smarter on crime. The report lists six ways to overhaul the system.

They include:

  • limiting mandatory sentencing
  • prioritizing rehabilitation
  • releasing innocent people from jail
  • decriminalizing poverty
  • limiting collateral sanctions
  • reforming community control

Stephen JohnsonGrove with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center says it’s important to take all these points into consideration when reforming the system.

“You know a soup-to-nuts overall look at the criminal justice system (with) ... the over-arching unifying policy goal: to dramatically and safely reduce the size and racial disparity of the criminal justice system."

A look at who's in prison
According to the latest count from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which came out this week, more than 50,800 people remain behind bars in Ohio.

Of all the people who were sent to prison last year, about 40 percent of the men and boys were black while about 58 percent were white. That’s disproportionate to Ohio’s overall population, which is 83 percent white and about 13 percent black, according to the last U.S. Census.

JohnsonGrove believes this demonstrates institutional racism embedded into the system.

“There needs to be a conscious anti-racial goal in all of these reforms and that can be done there are many specific proposals both in our report and looking beyond that report.”

Kari Bloom is with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, which represents most of the inmates in Ohio’s prisons. She says making these changes, specifically limiting mandatory minimum sentences, allows for more understanding among all the players, especially judges.

“We give them the opportunity to hear about the person who’s in front of them, hear about the circumstances that their crime or their life has led them into this courtroom and sentence them appropriately." says Bloom. "I think that that is a really profound way of looking at fixing one part of our criminal justice system.”

The advocates stress that limiting prison time actually increases safety because the focus shifts to non-violent offenders who will have an opportunity to get help. They say the current system creates an environment for repeat offenses in which people grow more violent after spending time in prison.

The Ohio Criminal Recodification Committee is reviewing the system and plans to propose suggestions to lawmakers by August.