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Mount Vernon, Knox County, Ohio

Local Government

Goal to reduce Ohio prison population may mean more non violent offenders serving sentences locally

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.


State of Ohio forcing county's hand in raising sales tax

By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter

MOUNT VERNON — A recent report from State Auditor Dave Yost's office shows Knox County is in good health financially. Ironically, the good news means county residents will probably see a hike in the county sales tax in the near future.

Yost's office rated Ohio's 88 counties on 17 financial health indicators for 2015. Knox County received positive outlooks on 16 indicators and a cautionary outlook on the indicator relating to the unassigned fund balance in the county's general fund.

Commissioner Thom Collier told KnoxPages.com that the idea behind the ratings “is to show where counties were in fiscal health overall.” The problem, however, is that counties can be penalized for being fiscally prudent. “Something we're required to do to keep our bond rating up, you can be penalized for,” he said.

The unassigned fund balance is the amount of money the county has not allocated to anything. “When we carry over what we don't appropriate, it helps us pay our bills the first of the year,” explained Bemiller.

“I think people confuse carryover with a rainy day fund,” said Collier. “It's not a rainy day fund. We carry over because our tax collections come in February, and we don't see that money until March or April. We have to [have carryover] to meet payroll and pay bills until then.”

“And you have to have money for emergencies,” said Commissioner Roger Reed. “If we have a roof blow off or need a new chiller, we have to have the money to fix it.” Both of these scenarios occurred.

The bad news doesn't stop with the caution flag on the unassigned fund balance.

“As part of this report, it appears that the governor's office is looking at how they fund local government,” said Collier. “It's based on what they call capacity: Do you have a carryover? Have you given raises to people? Have you assessed all of the tax you can locally? If the answers to those questions are yes, yes and no, which ours are, we're not going to be getting any relief from the state.”

It is because of the cuts in funding that Reed believes the motive behind the financial health indicators is that Gov. John Kasich's administration is deliberately looking for ways to cut its budget.

Bemiller said the county will lose $500,000 a year due to the discontinuance of a tax on Medicaid managed care organizations. To make up for that money, the state is giving counties a one-time reimbursement. Knox County will get less than one year's reimbursement. Morrow County, which assesses the full amount of sales tax allotted to it, will get between 3.5 and four years of reimbursement. Vinton County will receive 25 years worth of reimbursement.

“For being efficient and being prudent, we get penalized because we don't have a 'need,'” said Collier.

“Ordinary citizens were hit by the recession. We made 20 percent cuts in 2009 and 2010; we tightened our belt,” said Bemiller. “We came through, but we keep getting our funds cut. We have a lot of capital and infrastructure expenses we neglected during the recession; we want to get back on track.”

Bemiller said that in addition to capital and infrastructure expenses, there are other needs. The increasing use of opiates and heroin has required the hiring of an additional prosecutor and sheriff's deputy, the county jail is completing computer/security upgrades and the county just purchased a body scanner for the jail to control drugs and other contraband.

The public defender's office is another area where costs are rising but reimbursement is lower. A new state mandate requires the public defender's office to have parity with the county prosecutor's office in terms of salary, supplies and space, among other considerations. The state previously reimbursed the county 50 percent of expenses; that was cut to 45 percent, and for 2018, the rate will be 41 percent.

“We have a lot of these mandates, but they don't come with funding, or with enough funding, and yet services have to be rendered,” said Bemiller.

“We have $90 million worth of buildings we're responsible for,” said County Administrator Jason Booth. “During [the recession] capital expenditures were on hold, and now it just snowballs.”

Collier said the county is “bursting at the seams” in terms of space for the Court of Common Pleas, public defender's office and probation office. “We're constantly having a need for more space, which means having to get more parking, more offices and more upkeep,” he said.

The cuts in funding, increasing expenses and being penalized for good financial health have brought the commissioners to the point of considering an increase in the county sales tax.

The last increase was in 1994 and raised the rate to 6.75 percent; one-fourth of that is dedicated to 9-1-1. All of the counties adjacent to Knox have a 7 percent or higher tax rate with the exception of Holmes County, which is at 6.75 percent. The commissioners have to make a decision soon.

“We've held the line and are approaching the point of no return,” said Collier. “Increasing the sales tax has to be a factor in our decision. We only have so many ways to collect funds.”

“The attitude of the state is going toward self-sustaining counties,” said Bemiller, adding that she views it more as a partnership in terms of collecting state money and enforcing state legislation. “We are doing the state's work, but the attitude is changing toward local government and they don't want to fund us.”

“The state's forcing us to put the sales tax on, and that's a doggone shame,” said Reed.

Booth said he has been doing a lot of strategic planning with county department heads trying to forecast budget needs for additional staffing, elevators, concrete, parking lot and roof improvements for the Knox County Jail, and other infrastructure and capital projects.

“We want to have a lot of information behind us before we make a decision, because we want to be able to explain to the citizens [why we're raising the rate],” said Bemiller.

Hull sentenced in Chelsie Alaimo case

By Marty Trese, KnoxPages.com Editor

MOUNT VERNON  - The man indicted in the aggravated vehicular homicide case of MVHS student Chelsie Alaimo in November of 2015 pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison Thursday.

Curtis Hull, 33 of Mount Vernon, was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, and several drug charges.  A toxicology report showed Hull had heroin, cocaine and marijuana in his system when his Chevy Trailblazer struck Chelsie as she was crossing the street at Belmont and Mansfield Avenue.

Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel sentenced Hull to four years, six months with credit for 405 days served. Hull was sentenced to serve 11 months for cocaine possession.  Following Hull's release from prison he will serve a 3 year term of post release control. Hull was also sentenced to 90 days with credit for 90 days served for criminal damaging.  He was also fined $1,129 and ordered to pay that amount to the Knox County Sheriff's Office.  The judge also suspended Hull's Class 1 operator's [driver's] license for life.                                                                                             

Curtis Hull








Curtis Hull - Knox Co. jail file photo






Rep. Carfagna looks to empower nurses for mental health emergencies

COLUMBUS—State Representatives Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Township) and Scott Ryan (R-Newark) recently introduced legislation that would add advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with a psychiatric/mental health subspecialty to the list of authorized professionals who are able to carry out mental health holds. The legislation, House Bill 111, was previously carried by Carfagna’s predecessor, former Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl, during the 131st General Assembly. With a 98-0 floor vote, it earned strong bipartisan support in the Ohio House but failed to pass out of the Ohio Senate before year end.

If there is evidence that an individual represents a substantial risk of physical harm to self or others, current Ohio law permits psychiatrists, licensed clinical psychologists, licensed physicians, health officers, parole officers, police officers, and sheriffs to have the individual involuntarily transferred to a hospital for a mental health examination. The hold may last for up to 24 hours.

Adding qualified advanced practice registered nurses as authorized professionals in this realm would provide another important resource to ensure more effective and efficient care for those individuals in need. Carfagna estimates there are approximately 400-500 APRNs with this specialty that would be further empowered under this legislation.

“Ohio’s need for greater mental health resources is compounded by the scarcity of medical professionals that can deal with individuals in crisis,” remarked Carfagna. “By utilizing the expertise of this subset of APRNs, we can further help our most vulnerable citizens when time is of the essence.”

House Bill 111 now awaits a committee designation.

Carfagna represents all of Knox County and part of Delaware County in the Ohio legislature, District 68.







County's increasing drug problem affecting children

By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter

MOUNT VERNON — County officials got a glimpse Thursday of how the county's increasing drug problem affects children, and the picture is disturbing. Twins born addicted to drugs, children with lice and spiders in their ear and a 2-year-old left alone at home are but a few examples Probate/Juvenile Judge Jennifer Springer cited.

“Tomorrow [Friday] I am meeting with Columbus officials to see about getting a family court docket started to help families with their issues because we are seeing such an issue with drugs and problems with that,” she said Thursday morning at the monthly elected officials meeting. “Parents are just walking away from their responsibilities. … My docket is full with neglect and abuse cases.”

Springer said that a lack of foster families to take in the children compounds the problem. “We're running out of things to do. It's heartbreaking,” she said, adding that she tries to promote responsibility for parenting. “I will not allow parents to walk away from their responsibilities.”

Additionally, although children born to drug-addicted mothers can become clean with treatment, they have life-long learning disabilities with which they have to cope. These children need placement in a therapeutic foster home rather than a regular foster home, which makes placement even more difficult.

County Prosecutor Chip McConville said his office is busy as well with drug-related and other criminal offenses, noting at least three criminal trials and two grand juries are scheduled. “I anticipate to indict 30-some cases this month. It just is not letting up,” he said. He requested patience from those involved in civil cases.

Sheriff David Shaffer said he expects to have a new drug treatment option for inmates in place by Oct. 3. Modeled off of Licking County's program, he anticipates completing the final details in the next couple of weeks.

He and McConville agreed meth is now much more prevalent than heroin, and that much of it is coming from Mexico. “We see two to three times as many meth cases compared to heroin,” said Shaffer, adding that users turn to meth because it is different, not necessarily because it is cheaper. He did say there has been a decline in finding meth labs but noted meth users are more paranoid and violent than heroin users.

McConville said that the Mexican cartels are so good with distribution, it doesn't matter what the substance is. “The street people are telling me they're getting on meth to get off of heroin,” he said.

Springer said the mental health court should be certified by the Ohio Supreme Court Friday.

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