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Mount Vernon, Knox County, Ohio

By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter

MOUNT VERNON — A provision in Gov. John Kasich's two-year budget will pay counties to keep low-level, first-time offenders out of state prisons and under local supervision. The program is voluntary from July 1 through June 30, 2018; it becomes mandatory after July 1, 2018.

Prison overcrowding is a significant motive behind the program, and the opiate and heroin crisis is a major factor behind increasing crime and associated prison sentences. The program targets offenders sentenced to 12 months or less for non-violent, non-sex, non-mandatory felony 5 offenses and whose history does not include any prior felony violent or sex offense.

In 2016, Knox County had 28 offenders sentenced to 12 months or less for non-violent, non-sex, non-mandatory felony 5 offenses. Of those, six violated community control provisions and 18 had at least one prior jail commitment.

In Ohio in 2016, 28 percent of prison commitments were for drug crimes. The goal is to reduce the prison population and costs at the state level, and help communities ensure that low-level offenders receive the treatment they need.

The money stream is to the counties through the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction. Counties agree to supervise and treat offenders locally; in return, the DRC pays counties about $23 a day to cover supervision costs. The money can be used for supervision services, local incarceration, placement in a community based correctional facility, electronic monitoring, substance use monitoring and treatment, personnel costs, equipment and other programming and resources.

“It costs $27,000 annually to incarcerate a person,” State Rep. Rick Carfagna told KnoxPages.com in a roundtable discussion with Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel, Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville, Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer and Joshua Gutridge, probation officer for Knox County Adult Court Services. “That's about $68 a day. How do you take $68 a day down to $23 where they are getting the help and treatment that they need?”

The ODRC is allocating an additional $19 million in FY18 and an additional $39 million in FY19 to help counties handle the cost of treating F5 offenders locally. “We want our judges to have the ability to get people help,” said Carfagna.

“You do need to reduce the jail population so that those spaces are reserved for people who need to be there,” said Wetzel. “It's not a question of being in favor or not in favor [of the program]; it's more acknowledging that what we are doing isn't working. Everybody's acknowledging that we need to do something different. The crisis is becoming more severe...It's going to fall on local communities to do something about it.”

“If it becomes an unfunded mandate, it's a problem,” said McConville. “If you make local communities responsible for dealing with offenders, there needs to be some support. Those things are only as good as each two-year budget.

“Fiscally, it makes sense to apply the least amount of resources you need to get someone turned around,” he said, adding that in the case of repeat offenders, “you need a heavier hammer.”

Shaffer said that the Buckeye State Sheriff s' Association is concerned that although the first year the program is voluntary, the second year it is mandatory. “Only make it mandatory if funding is available,” he said. “Funding is in place the first two years. After that, it's uncertain.”

He also said it is important to leave it up to individual counties to use the money as they see fit.

Wetzel said the trend is to treat low-level, first-time offenders locally through cognitive behavioral modification therapy. Local controls include curfews; seeking, obtaining and maintaining full-time employment; and participating in classes such as anger management and T4C (Thinking for a Change).

“Part of the idea is to get them used to regular operating schedules,” he said. “Our probation officers are getting a lot of training in how do you deal with low-level, nonviolent offenders.”

Gutridge said the goal of behavior therapy is to provide structure and get offenders to think before reacting. “We're trying to put more tools in their pocket,” he said, adding that when you add drugs and alcohol to lack of control, “that's a huge problem.”

Part of community control involves bringing together resources such as Behavioral Health Partners, the Escape Zone, TouchPointe and The Freedom Center. Wetzel said that behavior therapy does not replace these resources; rather, a consistent message is delivered wherever the offenders go.

Gutridge agreed. “We're supplementing, not replacing, other programs,” he said. “It's multiple opportunities to hold them accountable. It's a team effort; we all work with each other.”

Wetzel instituted a pre-trial release program in which probation officers begin to learn about the offender and identify which ones need treatment and what type. “Let's get them the treatment as soon as we can,” he said.

“The pre-trial release program makes sense to try to figure out which of these people are not going to be a flight risk,” agreed McConville. “You want to have jail space available for people who are sentenced rather than waiting to be sentenced.”

Shaffer said that unsentenced felons account for one third of the county's jail population.

Through an initiative called Ohio Hopes, Carfagna is working with State Rep. Scott Ryan to address prevention, treatment and sentencing reform relating to mental health issues. “We are looking at kindergarten through 12th grade to see how can we identify mental illness at an early age,” he said.

Carfagna said that mental illness manifests itself before age 14 in 25 percent of those affected; 75 percent before age 24. Only 14 percent of those who need treatment are getting it.

“If you focus on the mental health part, you may never have the second issue of drugs and alcohol,” said Gutridge.

The concept behind the budget provision is not without precedent. Statewide, the number of juveniles involved with multiple offenses went from 2,700 down to 575 after a similar program was started. The program also reduced the population in juvenile detention centers.


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