Too Many Prisoners, Too Little Justice

Widespread incarceration isn’t keeping us safe

By Margo Pierce

(L-R) Terry Collins, David Yost and David Singleton. Photo by Jon Hughes/photopresse.

Criminals: They all deserve to go to prison and be punished in perpetuity. That isn’t exactly an accurate summary of the criminal justice system in Ohio, but taking into account the budget crisis and the annual $1.7 billion line item for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, criminal policies and procedures won’t escape scrutiny.

With 31 prisons and 13,000 employees, bricks and mortar are only one consideration – sentencing requirements, programming, post-release supervision and recidivism reduction, among other things, are also getting attention. It naturally follows that we ask, “Who are we putting in prison and why?” That was the focus of the March 25 panel discussion, “Prisons and Prisoners: Impact Ohio,” at Isaac M. Wise Temple.

Rabbi Ilana G. Baden opened the discussion by explaining that the topic of prisons and prisoners has deep roots in Judaism. She referenced one of the most famous lines from the Torah – “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – and went on to explain why this passage has “fascinated” sages over the years.

“The use of the verb … ‘pursue,’ or ‘chase after,’ for how does one chase after justice or righteousness? Isn’t justice or righteousness something that we should just simply do?” Baden said. “Our tradition teaches us that justice and righteousness are more ongoing endeavors. It’s not so clear-cut, and we must always be heedful to follow through, to not just to do justly, but to also make sure that we continue, that we go back, that we ensure that we’ve done justly, that we continue to do justly.”

She pointed out that the sages also note the repetition of the word “justice,” which serves to underscore the point that justice is multifaceted. It is a call to practice justice for “all parties, not just for those who are wronged but also for those who are alleged to be wrongdoers and those who are found to be guilty. They deserve justice and righteousness as well.”

This broad view made it clear that the panel, sponsored by 13 community-minded organizations, was going to challenge the popular focus of only giving weight to crime and victims, excluding the perpetrators.
Such a radical departure from the current punishment mentality meant sparks were bound to fly, and they did. Posing the challenge to think differently were Terry Collins, recently retired head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, with much disagreement from Delaware County Prosecutor David Yost.

Marianna Brown Bettman, a professor of clinical law at the University of Cincinnati and former Ohio appeals judge, moderated the discussion. It began with the most pressing bottom line – money.

Politicizing crime

“Currently we spend close to $2 billion on Ohio’s prison system – money that the Columbus Dispatch recently editorialized isn’t going to schools, hospitals, libraries, parks, highways or health care,” Bettman said. “According to … the Dayton Daily News, prison populations are at 130 percent capacity in Ohio. If existing policies remain unchanged … the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction predicts the prison population will rise 11 percent in the next decade. The cost to accommodate that increase will be $925 million annually … which is on top of the already existing costs.”

Bettman said that State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township) has proposed a prison-reform bill, Senate Bill 22, to address this record-breaking increase in the number of people behind bars. Seitz says he is moving forward because, in his mother’s words, “You can’t put 10 pounds into a five-pound bag.”

The Council of State’s Justice Center has been commissioned to collect data on Ohio’s criminal-justice system and develop solutions. If they talk with Collins, they’ll save a lot of time and cash, because he can tell lawmakers, based on firsthand experience, what he and a vast body of research already show.

“The fact of the matter is when someone comes to the state prison system, they’ve got 90 days to do, they look at the staff … and say, ‘I don’t care about you. I don’t care about your programs because, guess what? I’m going home in 90 days, and there’s nothing you can do about it unless I commit a new felony.’ Coming to the prison system for just a few days does not work.

“We have a lot of people in the state prison system that should never get out. I will never argue that, but there’s a whole lot of other people who could be served in different, alternative options that would probably be far less expensive and much more productive and create a better rate of return for normal society.”

Singleton used S.B. 22 as an example to illustrate how the exploding prison population and unsuccessful policies have failed to achieve safer communities. He said the bill, proposed by a Republican, “narrowly passed” the Senate and is now being held up in the house by Democratic politicians who fear being “painted as soft on crime,” in part for showing support for the early release of some prisoners.

He described those people who would qualify for this release as low-level, non-violent offenders whose release would help alleviate overcrowding and change the makeup of the prison population.

“These issues ought not to be as political as they are,” Singleton said. “If I ever hear another politician say, ‘I’m tough on crime,’ I don’t know what I’m going to do. None of us like crime in our community. I’ve got a daughter, I’ve got a wife – I want them to be safe. I want to be safe. I want all of you to be safe. We have that in common. When we talk about ‘tough on crime,’ that’s just the rhetoric that pushes people’s buttons and allows us to … fall asleep at the switch where we go along with policies and laws that wound up exploding the prison population.

“The politicization of crime is really disturbing to me, and I think we all owe it to ourselves, to our children, to our grandchildren to put the brakes on that.” (See “8 Minutes Behind Bars,” Page 3.)

Batting .620

Yost stepped in to challenge Singleton’s assertion that the growing number of people in prison is a bad thing.

“The criminal-justice system is supposed to be about punishing the people that actually commit crimes and deterring other people who are similarly situation from doing that,” he said. “What we ought to do is decide what people we need to lock up. … But at the end of the day this notion that sheer numbers should dictate our penal policy is absurd. We should figure out who needs to be locked up, who needs to be off the streets and then we should figure out a way to have them off the street.

“What we’re talking about here tonight is rationing prison beds. The first function of government is public safety. Before we educate, before we medicate, we need to have safe streets and make sure there’s an ordered framework for liberty where we can all be safe and raise our families.”

Yost offered no proof of his statement that punishment serves as a deterrent or that the growing number of people being incarcerated promotes public safety.

“I don’t think our current approach is getting us public safety,” Singleton said. “What we wind up having is a revolving door where we’re not really rehabilitating people in prison. Some people may be beyond rehabilitation, but there are some who should be rehabilitated, and we’re not focusing on that.

“They come home, they’re worse off, they commit more crime. And I also agree that we ought to decide who needs to be locked up as a community and, yeah, the numbers alone don’t dictate that. I wasn’t saying that. My point is that our vision of who should be locked up is skewed by fear. … If we, as a community, we let fear drive our policy, then we’re not going to lock up the right people. We’re going to over-incarcerate, and at the end of the day, that’s not helpful to community safety.”

Singleton pointed to sensational crimes such as shootings highlighted in television news as a case in point of how a narrow sampling of crime “distorts our picture of what’s actually going on.” He said, after living in New York and Washington, D.C., Cincinnati has “got nothing” compared to poor areas in those cities, yet many people tell him they don’t feel safe downtown in the Queen City. It’s all about perspective, and that’s what Collins wanted to add to the discussion about numbers.

“To get people’s attention, you got to talk about numbers – 130 percent capacity, $1.7 billion budget,” he said. “When you talk rehabilitation, 62 percent of the people who leave the state prison system don’t return. If I’m playing baseball and I hit .620, guess where I’m going to be? I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame.

“But I don’t have anybody standing on the street corner saying, ‘I’m an ex-convict and I’m doing well.’ But let somebody do bad and it’s all over every paper across the country. I believe we can punish people without putting everybody in prison. I think we have to start thinking differently about what we do with individuals who break the law and what type of punishment do they get.”

Collins wants the beds behind bars reserved for “the worst of the worst” and always have space available for the people who should never leave prison.

Closing Debtors Prison

People who fail to pay child support occupy 750 beds in Ohio prisons. The illogic of throwing someone in jail for not making payments, which eliminates the possibility of keeping a job and fulfilling his commitment, wasn’t lost on the panel. All agreed that alternatives are needed.

In an effort to experiment with an alternative to prison for child-support violators, Collins helped implement a pilot program. Seven Ohio counties served as test sites. The success rate was astounding – an increase of payment collection of more than 70 percent.

“We went into seven different counties and said, ‘Don’t send those people to prison,’ knowing that there’s some of them that need to come to prison but there’s more of them who don’t,” Collins said. “If you keep them in a job and make them pay their support and give intensive supervision … it’s a win-win situation to me because the children were getting what they needed, the state prison system didn’t get somebody they didn’t need.”

Yost agreed with this alternative approach.

“How about instead of sentencing them to felony, we sentence them instead to a first-degree misdemeanor and give them a 180-day sentence to be served two days at a time?” he said. “When you get paid, you show up to child-support enforcement agency, you make your payment and you go home and have your weekend. But if you don’t make your payment, we’re not going to put you in prison – we’re going to take you to jail on Friday night and you’re going to stay there. … On Monday morning at 6 a.m. we’re going to roust you out of the bunk. We’re going to throw you out the front door and say, ‘Go to work. Next paycheck, please pay your child support or we’re going to have another weekend.’ No fishing, no hunting, no drinking beers, no football, no hanging out with your buddies on the weekend. I’ll bet if you lost three or four or five of those weekends running, you’d start to get the idea that you’d have to pay your child support.”

‘A better way’

Yost assumed that most people not paying child support have the kind of jobs and disposable income to engage in sports and drink responsibly. He acknowledged contributing factors such as addiction that plague much of the prison population, but he never acknowledged that the ability to address these issues and move toward non-criminal activity was part of the process of keeping communities safe.

At one point he employed the dismissive rhetoric used by many who see prison reform as a waste of time because some people are simply unworthy of attention, and anything beyond punishment is a privilege.

“There is free will and autonomy and many, many, many people will not successfully be rehabilitated,” Yost said. “Rehabilitation and drug treatment need to be an opportunity and not the primary focus because you can’t fix people that don’t want to be fixed.”

He disagreed that it is necessary to give inmates incentives to make changes in their lives to avoid returning to prison.

“I don’t get an incentive to take a shower,” he said. “I just like myself better and the way I smell if I do take a shower. We shouldn’t have to incentivize people to behave well, to get treatment for your addiction. If you recognize that you’ve got an addiction, you ought to get out of it. If you recognize that you don’t have an education, you ought to take advantage of the opportunity that’s available. …

“I do agree that we do have a sub-population of people that require mental-health treatment, and of course they should be treated. I think the constitution does require that, just the same as if a prisoner has a heart attack, we’re going to take them to the hospital even if they’re a heinous murderer. We also have things that are in place, for example, in my county, we have a mental-health docket. For lower level felonies, we are bringing these folks into court on a regular basis, they are being supervised and linked up to services in the community, and there’s been some success with that.

“But let’s not make any mistake about it. We have mentally ill people among us inside and outside the prisons. And that is not a reason to relieve them of responsibility of their actions or to ignore the threat that they may pose to society. We need to recognize that there are limits to our treatment and limits to our compassion.”

Toward the end of the panel discussion, the moderator took questions from the audience.

Collins provided the best summary of the entire discussion.

“There has to be a better way than what we’re currently working in this state,” he said. “People have chastised me, saying, ‘You’re saying let everyone out of prison.’ I’ve never said that in my life. … I never said, ‘Open the doors and let anybody out.’ I did say we should have earned credit. I did say we should give people incentives for people to get education, to get drug treatment and do the things that will keep them out of prison because it reduces recidivism.

“The reality of the matter is the bigger problem is not who comes to prison. It’s what happens when they leave prison, because we in this state have a thing that your debt to society has never been paid – that when you go to prison and you get out of prison, your second chance ain’t your second chance.”