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Prison reform is here

Well, maybe...  Last Thursday, the Ohio General Assembly passed HB 86, which provides some substantial changes in Ohio law.  Basically, it makes it less likely that someone's going to go to prison, and more likely that they're going to get out sooner.  Here's a quick and dirty look at what it does:

Changes in crimes.  Most laws dealing with theft or damage to property, like vandalism or arson, have a threshhold of $500, where the offense becomes a felony instead of a misdemeanor.  The bill raises the threshhold to $1,000.  Many offenses include additional step levels:  theft of $5,000 is a 4th degree felony, $100,000 a 3rd degree felony, etc.  Those levels are raised by 50% ($7,500, $150,000, etc.). 

The law on escape is changed, too.  Under current law, a person could wind up with a second or third degree felony for failing to show up for a meeting with his parole officer.  That's now a fifth degree felony, or fourth if the offense for which the defendant is on parole is a first or second degree felony.

Failure to pay child support isn't changed, but there's now a specific preference for community control sanctions for that offense.  Eligibility for intervention in lieu of conviction is also expanded:  a defendant is now eligible for ILC on fifth degree felony trafficking, on nonsupport and certain theft cases, and where mental illness or retardation contributed to the criminal behavior.

Perhaps the biggest change is the elimination of the penalty differences between crack and powder cocaine.  This is accomplished by simply eliminating any reference to crack.  On the other hand, the quantities required for cocaine offenses have been sharply reduced.  A third degree felony trafficking used to be from the range of 10 to 100 grams, but is now 10 to 20, and the cutoffs for first and second degree felonies are basically what they were for crack cocaine:  27 to 100 grams for the former, and 20 to 27 grams for the latter.  Anything over 100 grams earns a major drug offender specification.

Changes in sentencing.  A big one requires the court to give community control sanctions in cases involving 4th or 5th degree felonies that aren't crimes of violence or felony drug offenses, where the defendant doesn't have a felony record.  This isn't simply a preference:  "the court shall sentence the offender to a community control sanction" if those two apply, unless the person had a firearm, caused physical harm, or violated a condition of bond.

The maximum penalty for a first degree felony is increased to eleven years, but the penalty for third degree felonies is substantially reduced; it used to be one to five years, and will now be 9, 12, 18, 24, or 36 months.

The latest Big New Idea in penology -- and no, that's not the study of porn films -- is risk assessment.  Basically, it involves using various psychological and sociological tools to predict the likelihood of recidivism, to allow judges to make more informed sentencing decisions.  The bill buys into this:  it requires the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to select a "single validated risk assessment tool" to be used by courts, probation departments, the parole board, prisons, and the APA.

Changes in prison time.   While there's virtually no "good time" credits under present law, the bill creates some, especially for completion of various programs:  some prisoners can earn up to five days per month credit.  The programs are limited to education, vocational training, prison industry employment, and substance abuse treatment -- no time off for completing Body Building 101.  The credit is more limited -- one day per month -- for those serving time for serious offenses, and sex offenders aren't eligible at all.  The credit is capped at 8% of the inmate's total sentence.

In certain cases, the Director of the DRC can petition the court for release of the inmate.  Sex offenders aren't eligible, the inmate must have served at least 85% of his term, and must have at least one year remaining. 

Judicial release has also been substantially expanded.  Before, it was unavailable to anyone serving a sentence of more than ten years, but now an "eligible offender" is one who is serving a "a stated prison term that includes one or more nonmandatory prison terms that in the aggregate are ten years or less"; in other words, mandatory time is excluded from the ten-year limit.  The time for filing the motion now runs not from the point where the defendant is delivered to the penitentiary, but from the point where he's complete a portion of the aggregated nonmandatory time:  30 days if the sentence is less than two years, 180 days if it's two to five years, four years if it's exactly five years, and five years if it's more than five but not more than ten.  (This actually isn't a change; since mandatory time has to be served first, the effect was to start the time for filing the motion from the point where the mandatory sentence was complete.)  For example, say the defendant was sentenced to a maximum eight years on a felonious assault, plus three years for a firearm specification.  Under the old law, he'd have a total sentence of eleven years, and wouldn't be eligible for judicial release at all.  Under the new provision, he'd have to do the mandatory three, and then five years of the nonmandatory time. 

Finally, in recognition of the graying of the prison population, the Parole Board has to review cases of all parole-eligible inmates who are 65 and older.

The legislature has also gotten around to realizing that what happens with the inmate after he's released from prison will have a large effect on whether he comes back.  The DRC must prepare a written plan for each inmate to "assist in the inmate's reentry into the community."

*   *   *   *   *

These aren't all the changes, but they're the most significant ones.  And keep in mind this is just the House version; there's no guarantee that they'll all see the light of day when the Senate gets done with them.  But most of them will.  This is being driven by one thing:  money, namely, the effort to chop some out of the budget.  That's not going to change.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at another major change in the law:  The effort to resuscitate the provisions struck down by State v. Foster, dealing with minimum, maximum, and consecutive sentences.

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