Stratton to Lawmakers: Stop Proposing Bills to Lengthen Prison Sentences

Despite broad bipartisan support to reform the criminal justice system, members of the General Assembly are undermining their own stated goals by continuing to introduce legislation extending prison sentences for certain crimes, former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton said Friday.

“You have 93 bills introduced in the Legislature over the last two years for more time for their favorite crime. … There are several pending right now -- more time for their favorite crime. Every one of those is the antithesis of what we want to do here,” Stratton told fellow members of the RecoveryOhio Advisory Council during the panel’s discussion on criminal justice and youth services at the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s offices in Columbus.

“We can send the message that the Legislature has to stop this,” Stratton said. “We have to say to them, ‘You have to do more in the tools for diversion.’ … Now, misdemeanors are sent for competency restoration. They are held for 30 or 60 or 90 days. They’re released with no treatment. They don’t get any treatment in the hospital beds. They sit there and they watch a TV show about law and order to teach them what the court system is. That’s the biggest waste of time, and we all agree on that. … If you know at the low level that they have an issue, put them right into treatment. Give us the legislative power to do that because it requires some legislative changes.”

Stratton, director of the Stepping Up Project in Ohio, said the Buckeye State is leading the country on a number of fronts on these issues, but sorely needs funding for crisis centers, housing and treatment.

“Give us the tools to fix it. And you -- the Legislature, in your sentencing reform -- stop criminalizing everything,” Stratton said. “We can’t keep adding mandatory sentences. The prison population keeps going up if you do that.”

Stratton said average (non-specialized docket) judges could use more education on best practices regarding mental health and addiction treatment.

“Our specialty dockets are really good about that because they have a team that gives them advice. Judges that don’t have a specialty docket don’t have that background or that understanding. We need a lot of help on that,” Stratton said, noting Ohio has the most specialty dockets in the country at approximately 280. “But they can only work if they’ve got the treatment options in that county. You can have a judge say, ‘I want them to go to treatment’ but if you don’t have that treatment provider in the county, if you don’t have that housing in the county, it’s not possible.”

She said there is currently unutilized money for specialty dockets in Ohio.

“We have a lot of funds unspent at the Office of Criminal Justice Services that courts have not applied for. We encourage more applications,” Stratton said, adding that the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services also has funding available for additional probation officers.

In addition to courts and the judicial system, the advisory council discussed the following topics on criminal justice: intervention and first interactions with police; jail and reentry; prison and reintegration; and probation and parole.

On the first category, members suggested carrying out intercept mapping and making sure those maps are distributed and used by policymakers. They also suggested at least some crisis intervention training for police officers during basic training, so they are better equipped to deal with people that have mental health and addiction issues. Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Ware said this training helps police officers avoid using force during the encounter, which improves the interaction for everyone.

On jail and reentry, members noted that inmates often cannot access medication to help with detox and often can’t receive anti-psychotic medication. When addicted inmates are suffering from withdrawal symptoms or not receiving their medication for their mental illness, it often results in them acting out and compounding their legal problems, members said. Other members also said it’s important to educate inmates on their drug tolerance levels before they leave jail, as many overdose right after getting out.

On prison and reintegration, members said more public health supports are needed. Former Gov. Ted Strickland said the state needs facilities “somewhere between” a prison and a hospital. Ware agreed, saying police would like to have someplace besides prison or the hospital to take addicts.

On probation and parole, members said too many individuals are going to prison for violations, undermining the purpose of having those systems in the first place. Another issue is the lack of housing for people using medication-assisted treatment and anti-psychotic medications.

The council had a more brief conversation on youth issues, which will be continued during the next meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 20.

LeeAnne Cornyn, director of children’s initiatives in Gov. Mike DeWine’s office, told members that her office will be focused on improving programs on the first few years of development, early childhood education, foster care, mental health support and prevention education, among other items.

Teresa Lampl, associate director at the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health and Family Services Providers, said her organization is witnessing custody relinquishments because people are trying to access drug treatment.

“That should be a ‘never’ event. We talk about ‘never’ events in hospitals,” she said.

Lampl also said that children involved in multiple systems are often sliding between the cracks.

“The elephant in the room for this group is the kids on the autism spectrum who have co-occurring mental illnesses or substance-using as a treatment. We do not have systems prepared to deal with that,” Lampl said. “If you are an aggressive youth, there is no bed for you. We’re sending kids out of state because we don’t have the ability. …

“We’re seeing more and more aggressive youth, and we need systems that are able to respond. We had a Joint Legislative Committee on Multi-System Youth that actually had some good recommendations, but those recommendations haven’t been acted on,” she continued. (See The Hannah Report, 6/29/16.) “We have a tsunami of kids coming that are going to need that level of support and we are not prepared to deal with them. We keep pointing fingers as to who is responsible, and the reality is that we’re all responsible.”

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on February 15, 2019.  Copyright 2019 Hannah News Service, Inc.