Clark County won’t accept $840K grant to avoid jail overcrowding

10:00 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017 Politics
The Clark County Jail. Bill Lackey/Staff

A local court won’t apply for a more than $840,000 state grant because local leaders believe it could create overcrowding at the Clark County Jail and put criminals back on the streets.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections offered the Clark County Common Pleas Court a two-year Targeted Communities Alternatives to Prison grant — worth about $420,000 annually — in mid-July, presiding Judge Tom Capper said. As part of the grant agreement, the county would have had to agree to not send fifth-degree felons to state prison, instead placing them in local jails, he said.

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By sending those felons to prison, the state pays about $72 per day or about $26,000 for a one-year jail sentence, Capper said.

“The bottom line is they’re trying to keep low-level felons out of prison,” Capper said. “They want to financially incentivize this process to judges. They want to offer the judges that money in hopes they’ll take it and not utilize prison as an option.”

In 2016, about 8,300 of the nearly 20,000 people in state prisons were sentenced to serve one year or less, according to the ODRC. About half of those sentences were fifth-degree felonies, the lowest level.

The community grants were designed to provide rehabilitation for low-level offenders that’s less costly for taxpayers. It’s expected to save the state about $20 million annually.

The money for the grants was taken from the municipal court system, including about $37,000 locally, Capper said.

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The Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the Clark County Commission all had to agree to accept the money, but ultimately declined because it sends a bad message and it could increase the jail’s capacity by nearly 25 percent, Capper said.

“It would just be a nightmare,” Capper said.

The court had until Aug. 23 to accept the request, he said.

Clark County had 54 potential prisoners in that category last year, Capper said. If even 30 or 35 of them were going to spend time in the Clark County Jail in lieu of prison, it would place a burden on the sheriff’s jail staff and space, he said.

It’s obscene that the court could contract away its sentencing authority, Springfield Law Director Jerry Strozdas said.

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“I had two judges who felt that way, unequivocally,” Capper said.

The 10 most populated counties in Ohio are mandated to participate in the state process, which begins July 1, 2018, but it could be expanded to other counties, he said.

“We feel like it would be a detriment to our community, to the safety of our community and financially,” Capper said. “Although it sounds appealing, it’s not nearly that simple.”

The mandated counties will likely be asked to reduce drug traffickers to fourth- and fifth-degree felons, Clark County Municipal Court Judge Eugene Nevius said. It will put police officers and probation officers at risk of serious injury or death as they’re trying to monitor those criminals, he said.

“You’re going to see deaths to probation officers and police officers because they were mandated for economic reasons to balance the state budget,” Nevius said. “They’ve sold out big time. Just wait and see what happens over the next two years.”

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The majority of the state legislature was against the community grant proposal, State Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London, said. It passed as part of the recently approved two-year state budget. The larger counties have more treatment facilities where some of these felons can be rehabilitated, he said, but that’s not the case in smaller counties.

If those counties can handle the demand for treatment, Hackett said it may work. If not, those jails may become overcrowded, he said.

“They’ll be screaming with people,” Hackett said.

The larger jails have space, but Capper said that’s not the case in Clark County.

It would interfere with judges’ discretion to hand down appropriate sentences, Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson said. For example, a person who receives a fifth-degree felony for breaking and entering would go to the county jail, displacing other people who are in jail with misdemeanor charges, such as OVI or domestic violence, he said.

“It’s another example of the state pushing responsibilities down to the local level,” Wilson said.

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