Ohio Should Follow Its Own Lead to Safely Reduce Its Prison Population

Jan 27, 2017

Executive Summary

1.   Ohio spends $1.7 billion dollars annually on prisons. In 2015, Ohio admitted more than 4,300 inmates to its Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to serve sentences of less than one year.

2.   Rehabilitating low-level offenders in the community costs less than prison and improves public safety by reducing the recidivism rate.

3.   Many communities lack the resources necessary to treat low-level offenders.

4.   Ohio’s Juvenile Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to Incarceration of Minors (RECLAIM)     program is a revolutionary market-based model that grants money to local communities to rehabilitate low- and moderate-risk youth rather than incarcerating them in the Department of Youth Services (DYS). Since implementing RECLAIM, the DYS population has fallen 74%, and the recidivism rate for those who complete a RECLAIM program is significantly lower than     those incarcerated in DYS facilities.

5.   By replicating the RECLAIM model in the adult system, Ohio can cut its prison population, increase public safety, fight the drug epidemic, save money, and ensure that communities have the resources necessary to rehabilitate low-level offenders.


If Ohio does not address its growing prison population soon, the state may need to spend $1 billion to build a new prison,[1] in addition to the $1.7 billion it now spends annually to incarcerate approximately 51,000 inmates.[2]  At 134% capacity,[3] the state’s prisons are woefully overcrowded and Ohio risks a court ordering the immediate release of a percentage of the prisoners like California was forced to do in 2011.[4]

Ohio can realistically reduce its prison population by locally rehabilitating low-level offenders serving sentences of a year or less.  Implementing such an approach, however, requires a system that prevents judges from simply increasing sentences to a year-and-one-day and thus circumventing local rehabilitation in favor of prison. Fortunately, Ohio has already successfully implemented its Juvenile RECLAIM program, a system designed to locally rehabilitate low- and moderate-risk youth offenders.  RECLAIM offers policymakers a model to replicate on the adult system in order to alleviate overcrowded conditions, increase public safety, save taxpayer dollars, and reduce the state’s recidivism rate.

Stop Making Low-Level Offenders “Better” Criminals

One of only seven states to impose prison terms of less than one year, Ohio sent 4,300 people to prison for less than a year in 2015.[5]  Most states prefer to use local jails or community supervision for offenders sentenced to less than a year, and for good reason—prison terms without treatment and rehabilitation make offenders more dangerous when they return to the community. Studies show that sending low-level offenders to prison actually makes them “better” criminals by exposing them to hardened career criminals who mentor the young, impressionable inmates.[6]  In the long run, communities, victims, taxpayers, and even offenders benefit from using local  incarceration and supervision to treat and rehabilitate those sentenced to less than a one year term.

Providing more treatment for low-level offenders can also help fight Ohio’s drug epidemic that claimed 3,050 lives in 2015—a rise of more than 20% from 2014.[7] Prisons are notoriously infested with illegal drug use and drug addiction.  Nonviolent drug offenders accounted for 27% of the state’s commitment offenses in 2015,[8] and the state is regrettably under-equipped to provide the treatment that most of the offenders need.  Ohio prisons treat approximately 4,500 prisoners for drug and alcohol addiction—far fewer than the 30,000 inmates who need it.[9] Failing to provide adequate drug and alcohol treatment to low-level offenders before releasing them into the community unsupervised endangers the public and risks higher recidivism.

Rather than crowding state prisons with low-level offenders who inevitably divert addiction treatment resources from other inmates, Ohio should use local jails and community-supervised release programs to treat and rehabilitate those low-level offenders. Such an approach will offer more treatment options to low-risk offenders, will relieve overcrowded prisons, and will make treatment resources more available to state prisoners who need it most in order to reenter society safely and addiction-free.

Ohio’s Juvenile RECLAIM Program

To address the state’s overcrowded prisons and rehabilitate low-risk offenders rather than making them “better” criminals, Ohio should follow its own lead and implement the highly successful, market-based incarceration policy already used in the state’s juvenile justice system. In 1994, Ohio started a revolutionary pilot program for troubled youth: Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to Incarceration of Minors (RECLAIM). Originally tested in a handful of counties, the state expanded the program to resounding success as the juvenile incarcerated population fell dramatically from over 1,800 in 2007 to less than 500 in 2016—a 74% reduction.[10]

The RECLAIM program has also significantly reduced the recidivism rate among Ohio’s juvenile offenders.[11] Low-risk juvenile offenders who complete a RECLAIM program have a 7% recidivism rate, while those who spend time in the state’s Department of Youth Services (DYS) have a 24% recidivism rate.[12] And moderate-risk juveniles have shown a significant drop in the likelihood of recidivism—falling from 43% to 14% after completing a RECLAIM program.[13]

Using a market-based framework, RECLAIM gives communities economic incentives to house and rehabilitate non-dangerous juveniles locally, and those incentives mater. Under RECLAIM, counties receive grants from DYS each year based on each county’s youth and low-level offenders populations. For each low-level offender—who does not pose a danger to the community—that the county sends to DYS, the county forfeits grant money. Counties are not prohibited from sending DYS their low-level offenders, but the program gives them an economic incentive to incarcerate, supervise, and treat low-level offenders rather than sending them to state facilities.  And counties may still send DYS those offenders likely to pose a danger without losing program grant dollars.[14]

Expanding RECLAIM to Adult Corrections

When the director of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, Gary Mohr, speaks about Ohio’s overcrowded prisons he emphasizes these key facts: the state’s prison population is incredibly overcapacity, nearing a record high; his budget is $1.7 billion; the state pays $25,000 per year to watch a person sleep; and one in four state employees work for his Department. None of these facts please Director Mohr. In fact, the director wants to cut his Department’s budget and send more state resources to local communities and jurisdictions.  Director Mohr, it seems, is not a typical bureaucrat looking to expand his budget and influence.

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest hurdles to rehabilitating offenders locally is funding. The RECLAIM program has shown that using government grant funds and market-based incentives can provide local communities with the funding needed to rehabilitate low-level offenders. Ohio should replicate the success of the RECLAIM program with DRC funds for communities that house, treat, and rehabilitate adult offenders.Director Mohr’s DRC recently started such a program called Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison, or T-CAP. Currently, pilot counties are receiving DRC grant funds under T-CAP for substance-use monitoring and treatment, supervision services, local incarceration, electronic monitoring, and additional programming and resources in exchange for voluntarily incarcerating and supervising low-level offenders locally.[15]

A broader T-CAP program could solve a number of the state’s prison problems and save Ohio significant revenue. A study by The Pew Charitable Trusts revealed that for every dollar the state has invested in RECLAIM, it actually saved $45.[16] Thus, a larger investment of the DRC’s annual $1.7 billion budget could save Ohio millions if not billions of taxpayer dollars. 


Ohio has the opportunity to build on its own success and provide critical leadership for reforming adult rehabilitation and corrections policy while enhancing public safety, fighting a deadly drug epidemic, reducing recidivism, and saving the state’s taxpayers money.


[1] Jona Ison, Ohio ‘on the cusp’ of needing to build a new prison, Bucyrus Telegraph Forum, (February 8, 2016), available at http://www.bucyrustelegraphforum.com/story/news/local/2016/02/05/ohio-new-prison/79824230/

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Robert Barnes, Supreme Court Upholds Order that May Release Thousands of California Inmates, The Washington Post, (May 23, 2011), available at, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/supreme-court-upholds-order-that-may-release-thousands-of-california-inmates/2011/05/23/AFY2ou9G_story.html.

[5] Targeting Community Alternatives to Prison by Helping Communities Manage Low-Level, Non-Violent Offenders: A New Pilot Program Explores Ways to Address Ohio’s Increasing Prison Population, Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Corr.

[6] See Donald T. Hutcherson, II, Crime Pays: The Connection Between Time in Prison and Future Criminal Earnings, The Prison Journal, (2012), available at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032885512448607.

[7] Alan Johnson, Drug Overdose Deaths Pushed to Another Record High in Ohio, The Columbus Dispatch, (August 25, 2016), available at http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2016/08/25/drug-overdose-deaths-pushed-to-another-record-high-in-ohio.html.

[8] Alan Johnson, Ohio Prison Population May Hit Record High This Summer, The Columbus Dispatch, (May 7, 2016), available at http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2016/05/06/ohio-prison-population-could-hit-record-high-this-summer.html.

[9] Amanda Seitz, Drug Treatment Rare in Prison – For Now, The Dayton Daily News, (April 5, 2015), available at http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/drug-treatment-rare-prison-for-now/r2zYlvdIyT33HbIe8CvCJN/.

[10] Ryllie Danylko, Campaign Calls for Closure of Three Ohio Juvenile Corrections Facilities, Cleveland.com, (March 14, 2016), available at http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/03/campaign_calls_for_closure_of.html.

[11] Juvenile Justice Factsheet Series: Juvenile Correctional Facilities, Ohio Juvenile Justice Ass’n, (March 2015), available at http://www.cdfohio.org/research-library/2015/juvenile-correctional.pdf.

[12] RECLAIM Ohio and Subsidy Grant Statistics: Fiscal Year 2015, Ohio Ohio Dep’t of Youth Serv., available at http://dys.ohio.gov/Portals/0/PDFs/CommunityPrograms/RECLAIM_Ohio/RECLAIM_Ohio_Statistics_2015.pdf, at 8.

[13] Id.

[14] Reclaim Ohio, Ohio Dep’t of Youth Serv., (Last visited January 24, 2017), available at http://dys.ohio.gov/Community-Programs/RECLAIM/RECLAIM-Ohio.

[15] Targeting Community Alternatives to Prison by Helping Communities Manage Low-Level, Non-Violent Offenders: A New Pilot Program Explores Ways to Address Ohio’s Increasing Prison Population, Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Corr..

[16] State-Local Partnership in Ohio Cuts Juvenile Recidivism, Costs, The Pew Charitable Trusts, (2013), available at http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2013/psppstatelocalpartnershipinohiocutsjuvenilerecidivismcostspdf.pdf.

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