Updated Wed, Jan 29, 2014 10:27 am
The Athens County Re-entry Task Force agreed to officially oppose a new House bill that would reverse prison sentencing guidelines of another bill.
House Bill 251 was proposed to amend sections of the Ohio Revised Code to eliminate special sentencing for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies and that currently require community control as a sentence for those crimes.
The bill was proposed after prosecutors and judges criticized the current legislation, House Bill 86, saying it took the judicial discretion out of their hands. Critics of the bill included Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn.
State Representative Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, has not taken an official position on House Bill 251, but says a focus should be put on mental health services and community outreach. She voted in favor of House Bill 86, but told The Messenger in December that she has heard from judges and prosecutors about bringing the discretion back to the courts.
The current legislation was put in place in an attempt to stem overpopulation in the prisons.
“Obviously House Bill 86 limited the ability of the courts to deal with judicial issues,” said Blackburn in December. “It also increased the workload that went to the Adult Parole Authority, causing them to be overburdened with parolees.”
But members of the Athens County Re-entry Task Force, who met for their monthly meeting on Monday, opposed the new bill, saying putting people back in prison isn’t the answer.
“(The bill) was intended to reduce overcrowding,” said Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services. “Unfortunately, prisons are overcrowded anyway.”
The argument prosecutors and judges have made is that people are avoiding heavier sentences for offenses that should carry the threat of prison time. They also say it shouldn’t be up to an entity that does not know the cases on a local level to give sentencing rules.
Blackburn previously told The Messenger that some fourth- and fifth-degree felons “need to go to prison.” He also said the judge should “have the right to decide that.”
Frech and the majority of the task force disagreed with the opinion of the prosecutors and judges, saying the bigger problem was with the legislators’ omissions, rather than their additions to the law.
“There is absolutely no money (and) no clear guidance from the General Assembly as to what to do with these offenders (after they were not imprisoned),” Frech said.
Prison personnel at the meeting said offenders need to be managed in a way that addresses underlying issues, like substance abuse.
The bill was introduced to the Ohio House of Representatives in August, and sent to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. It remains under consideration by that committee, according to a Congress database.
Frech said the task force would be sending a letter to legislators stating the group’s opposition to the bill. No timeline was set on the sending of the letter.