Bipartisan effort launched to update Ohio crime laws

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Offenders on parole who commit technical violations like missing mandatory meetings wouldn’t automatically be returned to prison under a bipartisan effort announced Wednesday as a way of reducing Ohio’s prison population.

The bipartisan state Senate legislation also would allow more offenders to petition to have their records sealed and give judges more discretion when sentencing inmates to parole. In addition, it would put more emphasis on rehabilitation in an effort to keep more nonviolent offenders in their communities.

The proposal is one of a series of efforts during the past few years seeking to reduce the state’s bulging prison population by changing how Ohio punishes offenders.

The goal is a fair and equitable criminal justice system, said state Sen. Charleta Tavares, a Columbus Democrat.

“Not every violation of the law necessitates a stay in prison,” Tavares said. “We are trying to do right by the citizens of Ohio by creating a justice system that rehabilitates and reforms those who have offended, not just places them behind bars.”

If offenders are doing their best to rehabilitate themselves, it doesn’t make any sense to send them back to prison for minor violations of their parole, said state Sen. John Eklund, a Republican from Geauga County in northeastern Ohio.

Ohio houses about 50,200 inmates — 130 percent over its capacity. That’s about 300 fewer inmates than this time a year ago, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The record high was 1,273 in November 2008.

Nationally, about 14 percent of offenders in state prisons are there for drug offenses, compared with 28 percent in Ohio, said prisons Director Gary Mohr. He said that makes him confident there’s a lot the state can do to reduce its population by focusing on nonviolent offenders.

A key is the emphasis on rehabilitation contained in the proposal, particularly when it comes to people fighting addiction, Mohr said.

He said judges should be able to look at individuals with felony charges long in the past, examine their overall record, and decide that sealing those convictions is the right thing to do.

“It’s in the best interest of not just that person or family, it’s in the best interest of the neighborhoods to seal that record and allow someone to fully become employed and have a sense of pride and dignity,” Mohr said.

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