Sentencing Reforms May Be Key To Ohio's Recidivism Successes

Ronnie Dunn (Cleveland State University)
Ronnie Dunn (Cleveland State University)
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Early last month Ohio announced its recidivism rate had fallen to nearly 27 percent, meaning convicts were reoffending much less than the national rate of 44 percent. Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction named a few reasons for this, pointing especially to rehabilitation programs for the success.

“It causes them to act and to work and to have a schedule just like we would expect when they are released,” said Gary Mohr, head of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

But the situation is much more nuanced than that, according to Ronnie Dunn. He’s an associate professor of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. Dunn thinks a big impact to recidivism came from a 2012 law that lessened so-called collateral sanctions against felons - allowing them to seal certain records, and giving them easier access to some occupational licenses.

Speaking with ideastream’s Tony Ganzer, Dunn also credited the city of Cleveland, where many inmates come from, for its decision to bring the punishment in so-called crack pipe cases more into line with other communities.

DUNN: “A person in possession of a crack pipe generally received a felony conviction. We were the only city in the state prosecuting it as such, and in surrounding suburban jurisdictions possession of drug paraphernalia, like a crack pipe, was only a misdemeanor. So the penalties are significantly different.”

GANZER: “And, disproportionately, the population of an urban center was being affected.”

DUNN: “Primarily African-Americans, so there was a significant racial disparity found there as well.”

GANZER: “Another thing that was pointed out from the department of corrections was Medicaid reform, that folks were more easily able to get substance abuse help, or mental health issues as well.”

DUNN: “The thing is, under the ‘War on Drugs’ we were basically addressing public health, mental health issues with the criminal justice approach. Once again, going to the crack pipe cases: if a person is caught carrying a crack pipe with a minimum amount of drug residue in it, they are a crack or drug addict. And they would go to prison from anywhere from six months to a year, and return, and still have the substance abuse problem. So that, in turn, would drive the recidivism rates, because they would return and continue to engage in petty crime to support their drug habits. Well now, if we look at the current heroin epidemic, we see a different approach. The state public officials, the mental health community, they are taking a more public health approach to treating this issue, versus the approach taken during the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s.”

GANZER: “Do you think a lesson was learned?”

DUNN: “I think a lesson was learned, but also I can’t help but note the racial impact of the communities impacted by this as well. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. Now, I am not saying that we should continue to follow the failed policies of the past. But I think as we move forward we should recognize this, and acknowledge it.”

GANZER: “The thing that still strikes me, is I haven’t heard something revolutionary, I guess, coming out of Ohio. For there to be such a disparity in recidivism rate in Ohio compared to the nation, I would expect that magic bullet. But I’m not seeing it. Why is this not the case nationwide, I guess?”

DUNN: “I think we are seeing it. I think Ohio really was at the forefront of some of these sentencing reform initiatives that we undertook. When Governor Kasich signed the Collateral Sanctions Bill that was probably one of the…it was one of the most progressive reform acts taken in the nation.”

GANZER: “So do you think that Ohio’s just had longer to experience these reforms than maybe other states now are adopting?”

DUNN: “Yes, yes. And we see at the federal level the Justice Department is now really starting to push some of these reforms at the federal level.”

GANZER: “We have pointed out that there is a racial disparity. Do you think the improvement in recidivism is more equitable, or is there still more to go?”

DUNN: “With the current drug epidemic we are taking a much more humane approach to providing treatment first, in lieu of a prison sentence. So, I don’t think we will see the amount of social and economic damage done to the people suffering from drug addiction, as we did in the past. But there is still a long way to go to help remediate the other damage from the past.”

On The Web: Pew Research Center's Fact Tank article: "Feds may be rethinking the drug war, but states have been leading the way"

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