Offenders receive services designed to help them overcome barriers such as mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of education and others
By Denise G. Callahan
Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio
BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio — The Butler County commissioners on Monday approved an agreement with the Common Pleas Court, the sheriff and the state to accept an estimated $2.5 million over two years to continue a program in which county jails house low-level felony prisoners.
The state program was mandated in part as a cost-saving measure for the state to reduce the prison populations. The new state law took effect in July 2018 that required Ohio's 10 largest counties to stop sending non-violent felony offenders who commit low-level crimes to prison, hoping that lasting rehabilitation is more likely at the local level than in state prisons.
Gov. Mike DeWine removed the mandatory requirement when he introduced his biennium budget two years ago, and the legislature didn't change it.
"Initially it was mandatory, then they made it optional, but by that time everybody got addicted to the money," Butler County Pleas Court Administrative Judge Keith Spaeth told the Journal-News. "Because they are giving out more money than it actually costs to house the prisoners, that's why all these counties including us continue to sign up for it."
According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, there are now 60 counties participating in the program.
The state mandates that no more than half the grant can pay for the actual cost to house the prisoners. The rest is to be spent on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other programs.
Offenders receive services designed to help them overcome barriers such as mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of education and a host of others.
Early cost estimates for the program were as high as $3.8 million. The county initially received a $1.2 million grant from the state to help pay for housing and rehabilitating non-violent offenders. The daily cost to house an inmate at the jail is $72, and the sheriff's Finance Director Vicki Jo Barger said the pandemic has impacted those costs recently.
"It's gone down, maybe because of COVID I don't know," Barger said. "But the number of bed days has gone down."
The rest the money has been spent on things like expanding the ankle-monitoring program and salaries for additional probation officers who were needed to keep track of offenders in the community. The new agreement with the state calls for those types of costs and probation department supplies, including bulletproof vests and vehicles.
Spaeth said the judges are also studying using some of the funds for courtroom technology upgrades like installing a sound system that includes a "white noise" feature so jurors can't hear what the judge and attorneys are saying during sidebars at the bench.
He said if they can tap these funds to upgrade some decades-old technology, it will save the county taxpayers in the long run because it won't come out of the general fund.
"It's not like we're putting Jacuzzis in every judges' chambers," Spaeth said. "We're looking for ways to update the technology and keep it consistent in all the courtrooms."
Spaeth said this law that prohibits prison time takes the "teeth" out of a judge's ability to force an offender to change. Typical felony five offenses are: felony non support of dependents; theft; possession of drugs; breaking and entering and receiving stolen property.
"If I've got somebody who has shown a lack of willingness to do anything, they don't show up for pretrial, they've violated their bond, I'm not going to put that F-5 offender on probation," Spaeth said. "Not me personally, because I know when they come back there's nothing I can do to them than 90 days in jail."
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