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Ohio Edges Closer to Enacting Criminal Justice Reform

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A diverse group of legislators and reformers gathered in Columbus last week to voice support for something Ohio officials have been working on for months: criminal justice reform.   

Long-needed reform of Ohio’s current criminal justice code became a reality last year with the appointment of the 24-member Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, which was tasked with the job of revisiting and revising the current criminal justice laws.

An increase in Ohio’s incarceration rate, as well as the national trend to be “right on crime,” led to the committee’s formation, according to legislative liaison for the Office of the Ohio Public Defender Kari Underwood.

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, believes that the major problem with Ohio’s prisons is that they are not filled with the right people.

“There are too many people going into prison who are nonviolent, who do not pose a threat to others,” Daniels said. “And as a result, for decades our prisons are being overcrowded.”

Ohio prisons currently hold 50,401 people as of September 14, but they only have the capacity for 38,579, according to a fact sheet from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Daniels said that while the ACLU of Ohio does not specifically work with individual clients, they have been coming up with different ways to facilitate both current and former prisoners’ rehabilitation. This includes helping released inmates navigate post-prison life and working on the voting rights of prisoners.

The creativity that Ohio’s ACLU is employing mirrors the approach of the Recodification Committee, which Underwood described as “a conglomerate of different people from around our state.” This mixture of professionals includes attorneys, state senators, an Ohio Supreme Court justice and mental health and rehabilitation professionals.  

“It’s so great to be able to bring all those people around a table,” Underwood said. “While there isn’t always unanimous agreement, the discussion is unreal. It’s a lot different than that purely legislative feel.”

Underwood hopes that this array of opinions will provide new perspectives to the topic of criminal reform and will ultimately result in a more efficient criminal code.

Daniels noted that not only are a variety of viewpoints needed when reforming the criminal justice code, but that a variety of people are coming together to support the issue, despite any political ties.

“It’s not a political issue; this is not a right-left-center issue, it’s just we’ve been doing this wrong,” he said. “Perhaps we should change what we’re doing.”

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