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Ohio Bill Would Send Many Drug Offenders To 'Community Control' Instead Of Prison

Statehouse News Bureau

The Ohio House has followed the Senate's lead in overwhelmingly approving a measure meant to lower the state’s prison population and send non-violent offenders to treatment programs instead.

SB 66 lets judges recommend sentencing people convicted of non-violent, fourth- and fifth-degree felonies that are not sexual in nature to “community control” instead of prison.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections director Gary Mohr says community control can mean several different things.

“It could be in a halfway house, it could be in an outpatient treatment program, it could be in a lot of things,” Mohr says. “It’s a whole menu of options that are non prison-based.”

SB 66 does not send more money to those local programs, although Mohr says most already receive some state money. Mohr says over the last eight years, the state has moved about $103 million in annual funding away from prison toward community-based treatment.

State lawmakers included a related measure meant to keep more low-level offenders out of prison in the most-recent state budget. Starting next week, the "Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison" program gives counties grants in exchange for sending similar offenders to county jail instead of prison.

Franklin County opted out of the initial optional phase over judges’ concerns about it limiting judicial discretion.

Mohr, though, says the latest bill gives judges more discretion when it comes to offenders already in treatment program. Mohr says under current state law, someone in a drug treatment program in lieu of prison goes to prison anyways if they fail a single drug test.

SB 66 lets judges keep people in such program even if they fail a drug test, if judges believe they’re still on the road to recovery.

A study on a similar program instituted in the state of Washington in 1995 found residential-based treatment for drug offenders was slightly more expensive than similar treatment offered in prison, but that cost was offset by a drop in recidivism rates.

The bill also changes state law when it comes to the sealing of convictions. Mohr says under current state law, judges are only allowed to seal one felony, one misdemeanor, or two misdemeanors from public view and employer background checks. SB 66 would let judges seal up to five feloniesm, with no limits on sealing misdemeanors.

The Ohio House approved SB 66 on Wednesday, 84-2. It now goes to Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to sign it into law.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the sealing of convictions