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The Head of Ohio's Prisons Pushes for an Overhaul of Ohio's Sentencing Laws

Gov. John Kasich (left) and Gary Mohr (right) are pushing for changes in sentencing and drug laws.
Gov. John Kasich (left) and Gary Mohr (right) are pushing for changes in sentencing and drug laws.

About a quarter of Ohio’s employees work for its prison system. So a shrinking state budget will likely affect that department. But that’s not the only reason the head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections is pushing for a major overhaul of state sentencing laws. 

Gary Mohr says Ohio could set a record next year for the size of its prison population and would have to start trying to figure out how to come up with a billion dollars to build a new prison. Or, he says, it could follow the lead of states like North Carolina – which cut a quarter of its prison population over six years.

“And it was legislatively driven by diverting nonviolent folks back into the community, providing less-costly resources to the community and being able to reduce the prison population. And I think that’s the path that makes greatest sense.”

A redistribution of resources

He acknowledges communities are often short on the resources to offer the alternatives to prison, which is why his department is funding pilot programs in eight counties, including Medina.

Credit M.L / WKSU

“Nonviolent folks that are sentenced to … a year or less: You keep those folks in your community. I will give you $23 a day for a year for each of those folks. And you can chose what to do with that money, but that’s enough money to put people on probation, where they can keep a job, keep closer to family, utilize money for day reporting. If they don’t have a GED or high school diploma, work on it. If they need job skills, get them jobs skills. If they need health care, those kind of things, do what they need to do, (including) addiction treatment.

"I believe that is the path that we should not just show to the legislators, we ought to be able to prove to them by the testimony of those counties that this really does work.”

A different approach

He expects the shift to community options will be in Gov. John Kasich’s next two-year budget for lawmakers to consider, and says the alternatives could be costly.

“I have to operate the prisons safely, that’s a statutory requirement. If this reform doesn’t pass, more money’s going to have to be dedicated to prisons, less to the community. And in the shrinking budget, it really means less.”

Giving judges more latitude

Mohr says making the most of community options cannot happen unless Ohio lawmakers also overhaul sentencing laws passed during the tough-on-crime ‘80s.

“One of the things we’re doing also is trying to reduce the number of mandatory sentences. … If you have to do a one-year drug charge or a one-year sentence and it’s mandatory, that person’s not eligible for any kind of earned credit, any kind of judicial release, any kind of reduction at all. … Sentences and sealing-and-expungement of records, I think should be a judicial discretionary piece.”

He says judges “have the information about an individual, they’re looking at the individual, they’re looking at the support of their employer, family.

And that, he says, comes back to the effectiveness of community control. “We can talk definitively about the fact that community programs. … For nonviolent folks, (they’re) twice as effective at one-third the cost. … That’s national data.”


Overall, Mohr says getting a GED cuts recidivism rates by nearly a quarter, and drug-treatment also makes a significant difference. For those who are in prison, he says Ohio has adopted promising programs such as therapeutic drug-treatment, job readiness and something called reintegration units,  which – when blended with community services – promises the long-term turnaround he’s looking for.

“These are these units that our men and women are inside prisons, but working eight to 10 hours a day. They’re within 11 pathways, this curriculum around wellness.  About addiction, about academics, about vocational education, about victims services, about community services.” And participants all do community service – such as training service dogs – some inside the prison and some out.

As for overriding success, Mohr says,  “Our measure should be in the community. It should be in the neighborhood. It shouldn’t be, ‘Well did we keep prison riots down?’ That’ important. But I don’t want to walk away after 42 ½ years being measured only by that. I want to be measured by people leaving our system and leaving parole and community services and being able to get a job and being able to hold their child and being able to smile. That’s what I want to be measured by.”

Gary Mohr’s plan calls for 4,000 to 5,000 people each year  to be to be diverted to community programs.

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

M.L. Schultze
M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.