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"Orange Is The New Black" Author Pushes Criminal Justice Reform

Andy Chow, Ohio Public Radio
Piper Kerman now teaches writing at two Ohio prisons and has become an activist for criminal justice reform.

High-profile leaders from different ends of the political spectrum gathered in Columbus Thursday to support a common cause in Ohio: criminal justice reform.

For years, politicians campaigned on cracking down on crime, on putting criminals behind bars and on lengthening prison sentences. But in recent years Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have been embracing reforming the criminal justice system with the goal of reducing the number of people sent to prison.

Republican Senate President Keith Faber of Celina says the state is going all out to try and make this happen in the form of a bipartisan committee tasked with finding ways to simplify, reduce and modify the criminal code.

“No one is here today to say criminals should not be punished. We are here today to say that not all crimes or all criminals are equal and we need to provide the prosecutorial, the judicial and the penal flexibility to make our system work more effectively,” said Faber.

In announcing the committee, Faber was flanked by a large group of supporters, which could be described as a fairly odd mix. On one side of Faber was ACLU leader Alison Holcomb.

“Nationwide voters believe by a 2-1 margin that reducing the prison population will make communities safer by facilitating investments in crime prevention and rehabilitation strategies,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb said Ohio has the seventh largest prison population in the country. And she says finding ways of rehabbing criminals without sending them to prison is effective and saves money. Agreeing with Holcomb was nationally recognized conservative leader and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. He says this bipartisan effort is much more effective than the kind of compromise discussed in Congress.

“Compromise in Washington, DC is when people who disagree get together and each agree to do something stupid that they think is counterproductive because they think there’s a good thing in the bill. And so you have a whole bunch of stupid mixed in with something that should be progress,” said Norquist.

“This is principled men and women from the right and the left who for their own reasons agree that there are too many people in prison, not the right people in prison, that there’s movement that can be made, that there are too many laws, we can function with fewer laws.”

Holcomb recognized the strange pairing of the ACLU with Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.

“Whether you love us or hate us on a given issue it’s important to us that you know that we have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies only permanent issues.”

Another heavy hitter in support of revising the criminal code in Ohio is well-known memoirist Piper Kerman, who wrote “Orange is the New Black” which detailed her time in prison.

“I’m fairly convinced I’m the only one up here with a felony conviction,” said Kerman.

Kerman now teaches writing at two Ohio prisons and has become an activist for criminal justice reform. She says that must include sentencing less people to prison, allowing more people to go on parole, and creating stronger community-based probation.

“In other words, not exiling people to prison but rather holding them accountable in the community and getting them the help they need if they need help,” Kerman said.

The general consensus among criminal justice reform advocates is that the laws need to change for non-violent drug offenders who fill up prison cells without receiving the proper help they need.

Kerman says these laws were created under the failed war on drugs policies.

“The laws that have sent millions and millions of Americans to prison or jail for drug offenses have failed to have any effect on those drugs,” said Kerman.

Faber said legalizing marijuana would not help the problem of overpopulated prisons because he said the drug leads people to cause other crimes.

The committee will continue to meet and put out a report for the fall of next year. That report will be a list of suggestions for the General Assembly to consider.