ACLU Makes Its Pitch For Criminal Justice Reform

Mar 23, 2016

While the election may be driving a divide between and even inside political parties, there’s still one issue in Ohio that has conservatives and liberals working together. ACLU is the latest group to jump into the conversation with a comprehensive report to try and tackle criminal justice reform.

There are more than 50,000 people in Ohio prisons. That’s down from an all-time high of over 51,000 in 2008. But leaders from all over the political spectrum believe something needs to be done to cut down on the prison population.

Republicans and Democrats have pledged to reform the criminal justice system and look at different ways to rehabilitate people without sending them behind bars.

They’re doing this through the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.

Several groups are reaching out to the task force to voice their opinions, and the ACLU is adding to their stance on the issue by releasing a new report.

The group’s Mike Brickner says it’s all about reevaluating the whole system.

“Is it just going to be a system of punishment or are we trying to restore people back into the community.”

Brickner and other advocates say the criminal justice system should not be just about throwing people in prison – it needs to focus on rehabilitation efforts.

“We’re much better serviced if we send people back out in the community who have actually been restored and not just focus on punishing them for a crime and so much of our criminal justice system is based on being tough on crime," said Brickner. "Now we need to move towards a system that is smarter on crime that we’re actually helping those people who are being incarcerated.”

Brickner says the ACLU’s new report will move towards that goal of being smarter on crime. The report lists six ways to comprehensively change the system.

Those suggestions include: limiting mandatory minimum sentencing, prioritizing rehabilitation, reducing the amount of people sent to jail by increasing ticketing over arrests, streamline community control and cut down on collateral sanctions.

Stephen JohnsonGrove with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center says it’s important to take all these points into consideration when reforming the system.

“You know a soup-to-nuts overall look at the criminal justice system is for the over-arching unifying policy goal, which is to dramatically and safely reduce the size and racial disparity of the criminal justice system, specifically reduce the size and racial disparity of the incarcerated population,” JohnsonGrove said.

According to the latest count from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which came out this week, there are more than 50,800 people behind bars in Ohio.

Of all the people who were sent to prison last year, about 40% of the male inmates were black while about 58% were white. That’s disproportionate to Ohio’s overall population, which is 83% white and about 13% black, according to the last US Census.

JohnsonGrove believes this shows institutional racism which he says is embedded into the system.

“There needs to be a conscious anti-racial goal in all of these reforms and that can be done there are many specific proposals both in our report and looking beyond that report.”

Kari Bloom is with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, which represents most of the inmates in Ohio’s prisons. She says making these changes, specifically limiting mandatory minimums, allows for more understanding among all the players, especially judges.

“So when we give them the opportunity to hear about the person that’s in front of them, hear about the circumstances that their crime or their life has led them into this courtroom and sentence them appropriately," said Bloom. "I think that that is a really profound way of looking at fixing one part of our criminal justice system.”

The advocates stress that limiting prison time actually increases safety because they’re focusing on non-violent offenders who will have an opportunity to get help. They say the current system creates an environment for repeat offenses where people grow more violent after spending time in prison.

The Ohio Criminal Recodification Committee is reviewing the whole system and plans to propose suggestions to lawmakers by August of this year.