A bill crafted by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction appears headed for passage this fall. It has bipartisan support from top legislative leaders as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Among its many provisions, the bill would give judges far more latitude in sentencing nonviolent offenders to drug and alcohol treatment or to community programs instead of prison.
For example, current law prevents offenders who are drug-dependent or "in danger of becoming drug-dependent" from qualifying for pre-trial diversion to treatment. The proposal would remove that exclusion.
Prisons chief Terry Collins hopes that section and other parts of the bill will relieve growing pressure on a system 32 percent over capacity.
"In this department, I don't get to put up a 'No vacancy' sign," Collins said.
"We can handle 50,000 or 51,000, but it's what you do with the bodies after you receive them that matters."
In 2002, Ohioans voted by a 2-1 ratio against State Issue 1, which would have substituted drug treatment for incarceration. The issue was supported by a trio of billionaires, including George Soros, but was vigorously opposed by former Gov. Bob Taft and all other senior statewide officials.
The week starting June 4 shows the urgency of the population problem. During that week, a record 308 inmates were added to the prison system.
Last week, there were 49,513 inmates in state institutions, slightly less than the all-time record set last month but 12.3 percent higher than just two years ago. The system is built to accommodate about 37,000.
Collins has opened unused wings and buildings in existing institutions, but short of reopening closed prisons -- which he does not intend to do -- he has few options, other than diverting new prisoners from coming in or sending more home.
The crime rate is somewhat higher, Collins said, and more prisoners are coming in on drug charges. The percentage increase for women is twice that of men.
On the other end of the prison process, the bill would make it easier for the state to request and for judges to grant early "judicial release" for prisoners for medical and other reasons.
The legislation also attempts to keep ex-offenders from returning to prison by removing obstacles to obtaining professional and vocational licenses and certificates.
State Rep. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, sponsored similar legislation that would prevent state boards and commissions from rejecting licenses for ex-offenders unless the crime is "substantially" related to the occupation.
Betsy Houchen, executive director of the Ohio Board of Nursing, said her agency "wants to maintain authority to review cases based on criminal history and the facts of the case."
"That's how we protect the public," she said.