Addiction and Crime in Ohio, Part 1: Mass Incarceration

Addiction and Crime in Ohio, Part 1: Mass Incarceration
(Lisa Pasquinelli Rickey/Flickr)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio's adult prison population last year fell below 50,000 for the first time in four years, but the correctional system still is bursting at the seams.

Currently at 130 percent capacity, Ohio has the fourth highest prison population in the country.

Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director of policy for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, says it's a costly problem.

"We can't keep investing $1.8 billion a year in our current prison budget, and if you don't change things, they're probably going to have to start talking about building a new prison in Ohio to the tune of another $2 billion just to build it," he explains.

It's estimated that 1-in-8 people in Ohio prisons is there on a drug possession charge. Rev. Susan Smith of Summit United Methodist Church in Columbus says reforms are needed.

"There's something immoral about a nation that incarcerates more people than any other modern country in the world," she states. "And we've got this huge mass incarceration problem primarily because of or attributable to these low-level, nonviolent drug offenses."

Issue 1 on the November ballot aims to address prison overcrowding by altering the state's constitution to reduce drug penalties so fewer people are sentenced to prison.

Kyle Strickland, a legal analyst at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, contends reforms are also needed to address the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

"African-Americans are more likely to be sentenced to longer sentences than whites even when there are similar crimes," he points out. "You see disparities in plea bargaining cases where African-Americans consistently are less able to get the sentences reduced.

"You see African-Americans getting arrested at much higher rates than whites for similar crimes."

Supporters say Issue 1 will improve public safety by freeing up resources for addiction treatment, crime prevention and crime-victim services.

Opponents contend it would weaken the authority of prosecutors and judges to make and enforce laws, and eliminate incentives to encourage drug treatment.

This story is part of a five part series this week that examines the intersection between mass incarceration and addiction. Part two appears Tuesday and looks at the scope of the opioid epidemic and what some call the "addiction to prison" pipeline.

This story was produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by The George Gund Foundation.
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