Toledo Legal News - News ACLU critical of Ohio lawmakers' 'every problem is a crime' mentality


A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio states that Ohio's legislature is "addicted to inventing new crimes and punishments."

The report, "Ohio's Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline," released recently, accuses the General Assembly of sabotaging its own multi-year effort to simplify the criminal code and recommends a halt to legislation that would add any new criminal offenses until the completion of the work of the state's Criminal Justice Recodification Committee later this session.

"In bill after bill, legislators propose creating new criminal offenses, extending the scope of existing laws and lengthening prison and jail sentences," the report states. "The sweeping expansion of criminal law into people's lives should concern elected officials in both parties.

"It has created a bloated criminal code, clogged the justice system and driven mass incarceration, all while contributing nothing to public safety."

The report stemmed from the observations of Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, who noticed a large amount of incarceration bills being introduced.

The ACLU of Ohio reviewed all 1,004 bills introduced during the 2015-16 legislative session and found that nearly 1 in 10 included language that increased incarceration rates.

"Upon closer examination, 1 in 9 bills in the House and 1 in 15 bills in the Senate contained some form of sentencing enhancement," the report states. "Even seemingly innocuous proposals on topics like agriculture, family leave and fantasy sports had provisions to create new crimes and send more people to prison and jail.

"The legislature's 'every problem is a crime' mentality prompted bills that would make it a crime to improperly use a gill fishing net (HB 480) or for a nursery to incorrectly say a plant was good for bees (HB 566)."

The report notes that the cited bills did not make it to the governor's desk, but 16 bills did make it into law.

Penalties for heroin possession and failing to stop after a traffic accident were increased and people can now go to jail for fixing an agricultural scale without registering with the state.

"This should be a wake-up call for legislators," said Daniels. "We can't expect criminal justice reform to succeed if legislators are constantly funneling more people into an already overflowing statehouse-to-prison pipeline."

The report calls the legislature's actions "mass incarceration by a thousand cuts" and notes that, even when crime falls, imprisonment does not.

"The state prison population has been stuck near the record level of 51,000 for close to a decade, despite low crime rates and moderate criminal justice reforms," the report states. "Over 18,000 people are locked up in Ohio's local jails; Ohio's prison system costs taxpayers $1.8 billion a year."

The Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee is a blue ribbon task force created in 2015 in order to examine and recommend how to simplify the state's unwieldy criminal code and reform laws that pack prisons and jails.

The committee is expected to make its recommendations this year and the legislature spent $250,000 on the two-year effort.

The ACLU said that the General Assembly "must stop undermining itself and its own recodification committee if the criminal code is to be repaired."

"The legislature should adopt a 'first, do no harm' approach rather than trying to fix the problem with one hand while creating the problem with the other," the report states.

"We need to focus on what's gone terribly wrong with our criminal justice system," Daniel said in a statement. "Mass incarceration is ruining lives, neighborhoods and communities, especially for people of color."

The ACLU says that the laws introduced by the General Assembly use incarceration to address policy issues like addiction, mental health and poverty, often exacerbating those problems.

It also cited a statement last year from Gov. Kasich, calling for additional reforms: "We can't prison ourselves out of this problem. ... The problem in the legislature is they worry someone is going to call them soft on crime.

"Here's the problem," he said. "One quarter of the people going into those prisons every year are going to serve less than a year."

The ACLU has called on the General Assembly to commit to three steps in order to reduce further incarceration:

Stop introducing bills that create new crimes or place additional penalties into state law.

Instruct caucuses not to advance legislation already introduced that create new crimes or criminal penalties.

Freeze sentencing enhancements permanently or, at a minimum, until a simplified version of the criminal code has been adopted.

The organization also offered advice from Nancy Reagan to legislators in order to "cure their addiction" to creating crimes: "Just say no."

ANNIE YAMSON, Daily Reporter Staff Writer

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