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Opioids, High-Priced Bail Combine to Flood Ohio's County Jails

Data from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections outlines overcrowding in Ohio jails. (Keiper)
Data from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections outlines overcrowding in Ohio jails. (Keiper)
December 5, 2017

By Andrew Keiper
Kent State-Ohio News Connection

Across Ohio, opioid addiction and pretrial detention stemming from unaffordable bonds have led to a dangerous jail overcrowding problem, advocates and corrections officials say.

An analysis of 83 inspections of county-operated jails found that 34 percent were overpopulated in 2016. More than a dozen jails were within ten inmates of being over capacity. The overcrowding problem plagues both urban jails, such as the Hamilton Justice Center near Cincinnati, and rural ones, including Allen County Jail near the northwestern Indiana border. Male and female populations are similarly affected.

Opioids are often blamed for the large-share flood of low-level offenders in county jails, but they’re certainly not the only cause.

“Part of the problem is that individuals who are addicted often lose their jobs, therefore they have no money to pay the bail or bond and lay in jail until their court date,” said Robert Cornwell, executive director of the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association.

An overcrowded facility can lead to a number of dangers for inmates, both mentally and physically.

Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director for policy at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, said inmates are at increased risk for mental or physical health crises.

At Hamilton County Justice Center, JohnsonGrove said inmates are sometimes relegated to sleeping in curved plastic “boats” in hallways when overcrowding reaches critical capacity.

“We have to look at and see the misuse of the criminal justice system,” JohnsonGrove said. “We have to see if we are misusing a hammer to drive a screw or a sledgehammer where we need a scalpel. So many social problems have been defined as criminal justice problems instead of being treated as a health problem or a community-social wellness problem.”

Solutions, too, are as myriad as the problems; Cornwell says there is no single answer.

“Well the solution to the problem, I’m not sure of, but part of it would be a long-term treatment program to allow the individuals to withdrawal from their addiction and then moving them towards some type of meaningful employment,” he said.

His organization has also been working with Ohio lawmakers to find a bipartisan answer to jail overcrowding.

“[We] are working with the Ohio legislature, in trying to look at the potential for bail/bond reform and what that may or may not look like,” Cornwell said. “And it has to be coordinated with the judicial branch to ensure that they are satisfied that the individuals will return and go to court.”

A policy reform, however, isn’t the only fix in Cornwell’s eyes. He sees jail overcrowding primarily as a product of the opioid epidemic – which he said warrants state and federal investment into long-term treatment centers.

Advocates like JohnsonGrove are also shouldering the task of finding a solution, although in a different manner. He similarly sees legislation prompting bail reform as a potential solution, but his organization is pushing a ballot initiative for 2018 – something Cornwell said is shortsighted.

“All problems can’t be solved by making constitutional amendments, and people who think that are misguided,” Cornwell said. “This has to be a legislative action. It can’t be an action done by a change in the constitution.”

Two counties are taking matters into their own hands to find solutions – one through the court system, the other through corrections.

Ken Mills, the director of regional jail services at Cuyahoga County Corrections Center, has helped pioneer a plethora of programs to help inmates attain GED’s, job skills and even health care.

“We’re trying to address all the issues to best set these individuals up when they leave here from coming back again, to prepare them to get into society and be successful,” Mills said. “Building bigger jails isn’t the solution.”

Mills, with the support of the county executive, sends inmates to the Euclid Jail Annex for six months of career and skills training. The program began in 2016, and he said there are plans to expand it to a third location to help incorporate the female population and additional programs like welding. He said there has been about an 80 percent success rate for individuals who have been through the entire program.

The CCCC facility was overpopulated by 368 prisoners when inspected in 2016, although Mills said the layout and million square feet of the jail help mitigate some of the issues.

Judge Becky Doherty is taking a different approach to helping defendants beat their addictions: through incarceration. She presides over the Portage County drug court and routinely uses high bail and temporary incarceration to help defendants detox.

“It’s not always the answer, but if I have someone who is routinely using while they’re out on bond, or while they’re on probation, taking them into custody sometimes is the only thing that’s going to stop them in their tracks and keep them out of a dangerous situation,” Doherty said.

Although the Portage County Justice Center was under capacity by three inmates in 2016, she said a few inmates a day can push the facility over the edge. Portage County, she said, is desperately in need of an outpatient drug treatment center, which would drastically reduce the jail population.

At the end of the day, the well-being and future success of inmates and addicts is at the heart of any debate about overpopulation.

This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded by the George Gund Foundation.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH