Study finds Ohio probation system is fragmented

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio's probation system is too fragmented and the state cycles too many low-risk offenders serving short sentences through the prison system, according to a report released Monday that found the state spent $189 million in 2008 alone on inmates with an average sentence of just nine months.

The study says Ohio's numerous probation agencies overlap, aren't coordinated and have different training standards, and that there's no useful information collected statewide that could help improve the probation system. The state spends more than $130 million annually on programs trying to keep people out of prison with no information on whether the programs actually work, the report found.

The study also says offenders who commit minor drug and property crimes are often supervised for years, while inmates who pose a high risk to public safety are released from prison without supervision.

"Ohio's probation system is a patchwork of independent agencies that do not have consistent policies," the report said.

The analysis also confirms something Ohio officials have known for years: A large number of offenders cycle through prisons with sentences of just a few months, placing a costly burden on an already strapped agency. One reason for this cycling: the minimum sentence for lower level felonies is six months in Ohio, compared to one year in many other states.

"We're essentially running the biggest jail in the state - in the prison system," Ed Latessa, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati and one of the study's researchers, told The Associated Press.

California is trying to slow the so-called "churning" of inmates by better managing minor parole violators in hopes of reducing the prison population by 6,500.

In Texas, parole and probation violators are sent to detention facilities outside the prison system rather than re-imprison them. The Ohio study found that four of every 10 inmates serving short sentences have a low risk of re-offending. Two of every three committed property crimes or were drug offenders, and have two or fewer prior convictions.

"Altogether this means that after the short hit of incapacitation, they're back on the street and likely no better for it," the study found.

About half of the 26,000 inmates admitted annually to Ohio prisons serve sentences under a year, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. But the cost to process them is the same as a long-term offender: about $300 for men and about $800 for women, whose medical screening costs tend to be higher.

"These individuals cost the same amount of money to admit whether they serve a day or serve 100 years," said DRC spokeswoman Julie Walburn.

Dan Cahill has spent the majority of his 55 years behind bars in Ohio counting multiple stays in juvenile and adult prisons. After serving time for a 1992 drug trafficking conviction, he was released in 1999 and spent 14 months on parole. In 2004 he served a straight 18-month prison sentence with no parole for theft and drug possession.

Cahill, now a landscaper in Delaware County in the center of the state, said he far preferred the straight prison time. He said probation is too severe, requiring offenders to report to monitors so often and attend so many meetings that violations - meaning more prison time - are inevitable.

"It's not an alternative for prison, it's a holding pattern for the prison system," Cahill said. "It's geared toward failure."

Many states have a centralized probation system. But in Ohio individual counties create and run their own programs.

"We really don't know how many people are on probation," said Gayle Dittmer, chief probation officer in Franklin County. "Right now there isn't anyplace to go where you can gather statewide probation information."

Texas prison alternatives include a system of state jails for lower-level offenders with a two-year maximum sentence. Texas also has five detention facilities for probation violators that are considered a step-down from prison.

"Parole conditions are important," said Texas Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire. "But you don't have to put them back in prison where oftentimes they just start thinking like a prisoner."

The Ohio study follows a report released earlier this year that said the state could likely reduce crime by decreasing the number of low-risk offenders it orders into treatment centers after conviction. Not only do halfway houses and community-based corrections centers not help such offenders, they typically increase the chance they'll end up in court again on new charges, that study found. Nationwide, the average state prison sentence was four years and 11 months in 2006, according to the most recent data collected by the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Nearly 5.1 million adults were on probation or parole at the end of 2008, or about one in every 45 adults, the bureau found.

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