Judges and lawyers say no quick fix to prison overcrowding

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Ohio’s penitentiaries are well beyond their intended capacities. In the second part of a two-part series, WOSU asks judges and lawyers what they think the causes and solutions are to the bulging cell bars.

Natasha Crabtree is the first to stand before Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Michael Holbrook on a recent Tuesday. Crabtree is charged with four fifth-degree felonies – all of which she’s decided to change her plea from not guilty to guilty.

“Maximum penalty I can give you on each one of those cases is 12 months at the penitentiary and a fine not to exceed $2500. Do you understand that? Yes, sir,” Holbrook said.

Crabtree will find out in January if she will go to prison for four years. Crabtree is one of hundreds that pass through the Franklin County Courthouse each week. For many of them it will be their last stop before they head to one of Ohio’s prisons.

More than 50,000 people fill the cells of Ohio’s penitentiaries – pushing them to 30 percent beyond capacity. The question on many minds is what causes the overcrowding? One cause is mandatory minimum sentences imposed by the legislature.

Michael Miller spent 23 years in the Franklin County Prosecutors office – 17 of them as the county prosecutor. Miller’s now a private defense attorney. And he said there are more mandatory sentences today than there were 20 or 30 years ago.

“Does that lead to increased prison population and therefore overcrowding, I think it does,” Miller said.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider said the prison overcrowding problem is cyclical. Schneider said many times when people get out of prison or they’re placed on probation, they have little familial support so local rehab programs have little effect. And they continue to break the law.

“The program can do just so much. If the family unit, if the home structure isn’t there then there’s a limit to what the program can do,” Schneider said.

But Schneider said it’s not just a lack of encouragement from family that’s to blame. He said it’s also behavior. Schneider tells about one woman who will wait for her court date behind bars.

“Now here she is facing two felony drug cases, low level, F4s, F5s. She tests positive for drugs while she’s out on her own recognizance so I ordered it revoked. It’s her behavior, though, that caused her to have that revocation,” Schneider said.

Schneider said he uses judicial release to help curb prison overcrowding. Here’s how it works. A person who may not have been given a prison sentence is put in prison. They’re given a sentence of, say, two years. Judges hope this will scare the inmate straight. And after six months in jail, if they’re good, they’re released and placed on probation. But Miller said this practice causes more overcrowding than mandatory sentences.

“There are literally thousands and thousands of those people that matriculate through the system in the course of a year. Maybe it’s good for some of those people to be there, but the vast majority I think we need some sort of a different community-based prison system. You can’t have people continuing to do illegal activities and receive no penalty. But I don’t know and frankly don’t believe that taking these relatively minor things and putting them in a prison, transporting them back and forth and the expense is really the right way,” Miller said.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien supports mandatory sentences. O’Brien said the legislature has good reason for imposing them. But he agreed they’re a cause for Ohio’s prison problems, but not the only cause.

“I think it’s a combination of mandatory sentences, a society more likely to commit violent crimes without thinking twice, and a society that doesn’t want to be fearful in their own home of a violent crime being committed against them or their family,” O’Brien said.

While it was fairly easy to come up with reasons why Ohio’s prisons are bulging at the seams, all three men struggled with a solution. “It continues to build and I don’t know what the answer is exactly,” Judge Schneider said.

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