A proposed change to the Ohio Revised Code laid out in the state budget bill would eliminate prison sentences for fifth-degree felony convictions and instead send convicts to local detention facilities – raising questions from local officials as to how Highland County is supposed to handle the change.
Currently, according to the Ohio Revised Code, a fifth-degree felony can bring on a prison term of six to 12 months. The proposed amendment, underlined on page 725 of the 3,512-page state budget, House Bill 49, states that fifth-degree felony incarceration sentences – with the exception of violent or sex offenses, or similar prior convictions – must be served in a county and/or municipal facility, rather than at an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction facility. If the budget is approved with the amendment included as is, the change would take effect July 1, 2018.
Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss told The Times-Gazette Friday that the amendment was included in the state budget because the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation will be handing out money to pick up the difference in local incarceration expenses.
Coss said he received communication from the ODRC saying it will offer $19 million the first fiscal year covered by the budget, and $39 million in the second. Locally, Coss said that equates to about $23 per day per inmate – less than half the average daily cost of inmate housing in Highland County, which is about $55.
“Sometimes, the only option I have is to put them in jail, sometimes for their own protection,” said Coss. “Under that proposal, the county is going to lose $32 a day to pay for that.”
Coss said he feels uncomfortable with the fact that there was no cost analysis involved in the amendment.
“I think it’s rather hasty to make a decision like this in a budget process,” Coss said. “This isn’t driven by good analytics. It’s governed by a desire to get people out of the prison system to save the state money.
“If this were a separate or standalone proposal, the law requires that the bill have an actual analysis of the impact on the state or local governments, but when you get it into the budget bill, it’s not required, so there has been no fiscal analysis.”
Highland County Board of Commissioners President Shane Wilkin said Friday he feels the amendment is part of a theme.
“In my opinion, this is another shift of the burden from the state to the counties, and the funding they offered will not be adequate to cover the cost it would have for us,” he said. “On top of that, our jail is at capacity… we don’t have any room.”
In an analysis he released to the Ohio Judicial Conference and several of his fellow common pleas judges, Coss detailed a host of other concerns, saying he’s worried the amendment would stimulate crime from “smart career criminals,” such as con artists or drug dealers who would play the system by only committing fifth-degree felonies knowing they wouldn’t have to serve prison time.
“There appears to be no limit to the number of fifth-degree felonies that a person can commit and not be required to serve a prison term,” Coss said in his analysis. “If a person on community control supervision for a fifth-degree felony commits a new fifth-degree felony, there can be no prison sentence, because neither of the sentences can be served in a prison.”
Coss and Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins both used the “carrot and stick” analogy to explain the justice system’s use of prison terms as leverage to get offenders into treatment programs – the “carrot” being a treatment program, and the “stick” being the threat of serving a prison sentence.
“They’re taking the ‘stick’ away,” Collins said. She said this would be “very unfair” to victims of fifth-degree felony offenses.
According to Coss, a looming prison sentence is often motivation for offenders to agree to the appropriate treatment, whether it’s for a drug offense or not.
In the case of drug offenders failing to comply with treatment or other supervision, Coss said the amendment takes away accountability and even their personal safety.
“Sometimes [a prison sentence] is the only way to save them from committing more crimes or overdosing,” he said.
Coss said the proposal essentially equivocates a fifth-degree felony to a first-degree misdemeanor, the maximum sentence for which is six months in a county jail.
Collins aggreed, saying that under the new proposal, fifth-degree felonies “may as well not be a law.”
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.