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Budget Spurs Fight Over Ohio's Prison Diversion Program

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There’s a controversial proposal in the state budget that will be voted on this week that its supporters say would cut down on prison overcrowding. But opponents say this prison diversion program, now in operation in eight counties, is the wrong tactic in Ohio’s deadly opioid crisis.

The budget would expand the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison, or TCAP, program. It’s in operation in eight counties right now, and it seeks to remove about 4,000 non-violent offenders out of the state’s prison system and give $60 million to local communities to monitor and treat them.

Republican state auditor Dave Yost is running for Attorney General, and in a letter opposing the plan he said it’ll end up helping heroin dealers instead of the state.

“I just think in the middle of an opiate crisis, that’s a non-starter,” Yost said. “We’ve got to be able to have the threat of prison to work our way up the food chain and get the big fish at the top of the distribution network, and that’s not going happen if they know they’re going to be sentenced to ‘double-secret probation’ back home.”

Ohio’s prisons are about 30 percent over capacity, and have bursting at the seams for years. Prisons director Gary Mohr has been pushing back on calls that Ohio should build a new prison, saying he’d resign before he’d agree to spending a billion dollars that way.

Mohr says the TCAP program is a good start toward reducing overcrowding and helping drug addicts that are flooding the system, because he says in many cases drug offenders coming to state prisons are just supporting their own habits. 

“And this group of non-violent offenders, their criminality’s actually enhanced often by sending people to prison,” Mohr said on "The State of Ohio" in April. “Do we want to make people worse and spend more money or do we want to be more efficient with money and put people in the right seat and to be right on crime and to handle drug addiction as a medical issue – do we want to do that? I think we do.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has been supportive of the plan, as has Freedom Works, a Tea Party-backed group.

But prosecutors are concerned, saying that perhaps the laws on lower-level felonies should be changed instead. And this comes at a time when U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions has told federal prosecutors to go for mandatory minimum sentences when dealing with drug cases.