DRC Director Pushes Prisoner Diversion Program, Pushes Back Against Building Another Prison

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Five percent of the state budget is dedicated to maintaining the state’s 27 prisons, which have been overcrowded for decades.  And the state’s prisons director wants to change that before the state has to consider doing something he says he won’t do.

There are more than 50,000 inmates in Ohio’s prison system, which is at 132% capacity and almost topped an all-time record last year. And those buildings are near to bursting in large part because of drug related offenses, but also with people suffering from mental illness. And prisons director Gary Mohr isn’t happy about this situation. “Let me just be upfront. I don’t think I’ve handled it very well, have I?”, Mohr said.

Mohr has worked in prisons since July 1970, starting at the Marion Correctional Institution. He says there were eight prisons holding 8,300 inmates – 16% of the number behind bars now. Mohr notes a quarter of all state employees work for him – more than 12,000 people. And Mohr said all this is driving up the state’s cost at an enormous rate. “If you were to take the budget that existed the day I started and multiply it by all the inflationary factors to get it to today’s value, it would be $360 million a year to operate our system. Instead today it’s almost $1.8 billion,” Mohr said.

Mohr said he doesn’t want all that money – he wants it to be spent in other areas to keep people from ending up in trouble with the law in the first place. But that’s long term. Right now, Mohr is backing a diversion program for non-violent, low-level offenders who will serve less than a year.

About 3,400 of the 20,000 new inmates in the Ohio prison system would qualify for Targeted Community Alternative to Prison, or TCAP. It’s a pilot program in eight counties that Gov. John Kasich wants to expand in his budget. Instead of sending those low-level non-violent offenders to state prisons, they’d go to counties, which would get $23 per prisoner per day.  That saves the state a lot, because it costs more than $67 a day to house an inmate in a state prison. But that $23 is also a lot less than what it costs counties, and lawmakers who are looking at this proposal note many counties are already dealing with big bills and overcrowded facilities. But Mohr said he’s not hearing opposition when reaching out to counties. “In four days, we’ve gotten 27 counties that want to be part of this – in four days. So I’m not sure that the practitioners are really opposing this. I think the associations are – county commissioners, I think they are.”

Mohr said counties can use the money however they want – for electronic monitoring and more supervision, or for drug treatment, counseling community service or job training. “One of the counties that’s part of the pilot has taken some of the monies and hired a part-time medical director with that to handle the medication-assisted treatment, to help them, guide them in their drug court processes, to help monitor folks and be there as an aide,” Mohr said.

Kasich’s budget would spend $58 million on expanding TCAP, which Mohr said will save the state $20 million. But Mohr said more importantly, it’ll help the state deal with a longstanding overcrowding crisis that has some wondering if Ohio shouldn’t just build a new prison. Mohr said that would be an unfortunate fate for inmates now coming into the system, who are mostly non-violent drug offenders, and a bad use of more than a billion dollars in state tax money. “Do we want to make people worse and spend more money, or do we want to be more efficient with money and put people in the right seat and to be right on crime and to handle drug addiction as a medical issue? I think we do. I don’t think we want to expend taxpayers’ money,” Mohr said. “And I won’t do that. And I’ve said this before. I am not going to build a prison. I will walk away in a hot minute. And yet we do hear some people that think that’s the right thing to do.”

Mohr said keeping non violent offenders out of prison helps them get back on track and out of the legal system longterm. And he also touts the state’s recidivism rate – which sits at 29% and hasn’t declined since reaching a low of 27% seven years ago. That means more than a quarter of inmates who leave an Ohio prison come back at some point, but Mohr noted the national rate is 40% - which he says would be enough to fill two prisons with just repeat offenders.