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ACLU: Ohio Legislature Still Proposing Too Many Crime Bills

Franklin Medical Center is one of the state prison facilities hit by the coronavirus.
Paige Pfleger
Franklin Medical Center is one of the state prison facilities hit by the coronavirus.

A report from the ACLU of Ohio finds that nearly one of every 10 bills introduced by Ohio lawmakers during the last legislative session were criminal justice-related, and at odds with efforts to reduce the state's prison population.

Although the legislature was preoccupied last year by COVID-19 and the nuclear bailout scandal, lawmakers still found time to introduce a lot of bills that sought to toughen penalties on crime – while declining to help solve the serious overcrowding in state prisons.

A recent "Statehouse to Prison Pipeline report" from the Ohio ACLU found that 9.4% of the nearly 2,000 bills introduced during the 133rd Ohio General Assembly could have sent more people to prisons by creating new crimes, enhancing existing sentences, or expanding current criminal laws.

Only nine bills were enacted, and none of the proposals would have imprisoned a lot of people on their own. But Gary Daniels with the ACLU of Ohio says he’s concerned about the ones that would make serious crimes out of actions taken by a small number of offenders – what the report calls "mass incarceration by a thousand cuts."

“That 10 over here and five over there and 15 over there – that’s part of how we get to this larger problem, is not only those big bills but the constant onslaught of smaller bills,” Daniels said.

At the same time, Daniels says Ohio lawmakers offered no bills to reduce the prison population, even though at least 130 inmates and 10 prison staff have died of COVID-19 over the past year.

Annette Chambers-Smith, head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told a House committee last week that Ohio's prison population has fallen from 49,080 inmates at the beginning of the pandemic to 43,472 now. However, the lower figure still puts the prison system at 118% of capacity.

“Not a single one of those almost 1,200 bills had anything to do with our prison population and getting people out of prison and making our prisons safer as a result of the ongoing human rights crisis in Ohio prisons as it relates to COVID-19,” Daniels said.