An Ohio Senate bill proposed in the statehouse would move non-violent fourth- and fifth-degree felons out of state prisons and keep them in local communities, said Fayette County Vernon P. Stanforth.
Stanforth referred to Ohio Senate Bill 66, which was scheduled this week for a final hearing in the Senate but was pulled off the schedule to be amended.
The bill is sponsored by Ohio senators Charleta Tavares (D-OH) and John Eklund (R-OH).
Sponsor representatives said it is likely Senate Bill 66 will be put back on the schedule sometime in early February.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction supports the bill and spoke in favor during at least one of three hearings on the bill in the state Senate, said people familiar with the proposal.
A version of the proposed bill states that fourth-and-fifth degree felonies may be punished by community sanctions, so long as the offenses are not acts of violence, involve weapons, or sex crimes. Low-tier felony charges like operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI), possession of drugs, and possession of a drug abuse instrument, can each carry a minimum sentence of six months in prison, but if Senate Bill 66 becomes law, those offenses would be punishable by local community control sanctions.
Stanforth said offenders in state prisons would be required to return to either the county from which they were convicted. or to their county of residence, to face local community sanctions.
“It’s going to impact local governments because local governments are going to have to do the state’s jobs,” said Stanforth. “It’s going to happen. There’s no question this is going to happen.”
Those local sanctions could include a combination of local jail time and monitoring, rehabilitation, treatment, and parole and probationary supervision.
Stanforth said the state’s support for moving convicted felons out of state prisons and back into communities is comparable to the state’s decision to close mental health facilities and release patients back into their communities.
“We were dealing with those with development disabilities and the mentally challenged, and the state pushed them to the local agencies — that was done in the 1970s and 1980s and we’re still dealing with the ramifications from that change on a local level,” said Stanforth. “Now local government and county will have to deal with the residual problems of handling fourth- and fifth-degree felons.”
Stanforth said the Fayette County Jail — built in 1884 — is currently overcrowded and won’t be able to meet demands of housing inmates.
Fayette County officials began working on a plan in 2017 with a contractor to conduct a needs assessment for the county to design a new county jail, but Stanforth said the county jail may not be the best location to place people and called the jail a “revolving door” for people who need something more than imprisonment.
If Senate Bill 66 passes the Senate vote expected in February, the bill goes to the Ohio House of Representatives, and with enough votes will be presented to Governor John Kasich.
“I don’t believe the state can afford to pay each county what the counties need to do this transformation, but the state wants to show that it can reduce its prison population. It is reducing its population on the backs of counties,” said Stanforth.
Stanforth said the community shouldn’t want to advocate all of its local duties to a state, but said he believed the state has the ability to take on and maintain things broader than the county. “At the same time,” said Stanforth, “communities must step up to the plate and take responsibility and do some things for themselves. State agencies can’t be responsible for everything. It’s not an easy balance.”
Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Bob Cornwell said the state-wide sheriff’s association’s position on Senate Bill 66 can change at anytime depending on the amendments made to the bill as it is passed through the committees in the Ohio statehouse.
Cornwell said it’s too early to give an official statement of the position of the state-wide sheriff’s association on Senate Bill 66.
“We are working with the legislature to make changes that will assist the sheriffs in the performance of their duties and responsibilities,” said Cornwell.
Stanforth said the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office and Fayette County Jail “cannot meet the demands of today’s society,” and added that it’s not just because of the increased demand on law enforcement from the impact of the opioid crisis, but because of a variety of factors.
“I think there needs to be a new approach to the way we incarcerate people,” said Stanforth. “If it’s a non-violent offense, we really need to think about if we need to place those people in jail. Community sanctions need to be more than just putting people in jail. Some people think only jail is an appropriate punishment to get people to comply. Jail has a value but needs reserved for cases where people won’t conform to community standards.”
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