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County's reentry coalition holds keys to state's prison reform success

June 24, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Faced with underfunding for critical reforms, Clevelanders bring their voices to the State House

After seeing the results of Ohio’s initial biennial state budget negotiations—which included a 93 percent cut in state aid for his county’s mental health budget—William Denihan, the CEO of the ADAMHS (Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services) board of Cuyahoga County and head of the county’s Reentry Leadership Coalition, decided that “we had to do something dramatic” to win appropriate funding for county re-entry programs that offer “treatment instead of incarceration” for non-violent offenders.

So, days later, some 100 Greater Clevelanders—including leaders of the Cuyahoga County Reentry Leadership Coalition, local law enforcement, county and city government, recovery and re-entry services, and mental health services, along with ex-inmates, consumers, and citizens—piled on two buses and took their case to the Ohio State House, where they requested—and got—a one-hour meeting with three key state directors: Gary Mohr, the director of Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC); Tracy Plouck, the director of Ohio’s Department of Mental Health (ODMH); and Orman Hall, Director of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services (ODADAS).

Prison reforms can work, if they’re funded

On June 17, 100 members of Cuyahoga County’s Reentry Leadership Coalition traveled to Columbus for a meeting with state officials. Among the group were, from left, Edward Little, Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry; Charles See, Executive Director of Community Re-entry, Inc.; and William Denihan, CEO of Cuyahoga County’s ADAMHS Board and chairman of the Reentry Leadership Coalition.

In Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland and the destination for 5,000 individuals released from Ohio prisons each year, there’s real support for Gov. John Kasich’s Ohio sentencing and prison reform plan, which would cut state corrections costs by reducing the number of non-violent (felony 4, felony 5) offenders in Ohio’s prisons. The plan would impact Cuyahoga, one of Ohio’s largest counties, by releasing or diverting an additional 1,000 individuals from state prison incarceration to community correction and re-entry services each year. Citing “evidence-based reentry services with proven results that have significantly reduced repeat crime and return to prison for many individuals,” Denihan launched the Coalition’s message of support for Ohio’s prison reforms. He explained that community-based reentry services, which include educational, employment and vocational training, mental health and addiction treatment, housing assistance, healthcare and case management reduced recidivism rates from a high of 65 percent to as low as four percent. This type of service package is essential for returning individuals, he argued, since ODRC intake studies show that one-third of those returning have mental health disorders and 89 percent have addiction disorders.

But, he noted, the Governor’s reform plan—while reaping a benefit of 25 to 35 million in savings for the 1,000 individuals returned to Cuyahoga County—offers Cuyahoga just $ 2 million in additional funding to support re-entry efforts, far below the County’s $5 million in expected costs.

With adequate funding, reentry services make great economic sense, noted Edward Little of the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry. Armed with statistics, Little explained that the $5,000 cost of effective reentry services was just a fraction of the $25,000 annual cost of incarceration in prison, a cost the rises to $35,000 for inmates with behavioral health problems.

Little went on to detail the benefits of using the county’s own community based corrections facilities and halfway houses as an alternative to state prison incarceration. He said that this would cut the cost of housing Cuyahoga County’s current state prison population of 2,139 F4 and F5 offenders from $53. 6 to just $16.9 million—a savings of $36.7 million.

State directors offer support, but face constraints

First to respond to the Reentry Coalitions ideas was ODCR director Gary Mohr. “We’re poised to make historic changes in Ohio’s sentencing system,” he began, noting that each year, 12,000 Ohioans come to prison and serve less than one year. “What’s the logic of going to prison, away from families and jobs? Being labeled as a offender, and going back with no supervision?” he asked. “It doesn’t make sense.” “The future of our department is in our communities,” noting that although prisons will always be needed for some, “they’re no place for people who want to change.” Citing his department’s plans to reduce prison populations by about 5,000 inmates, or 10 percent, in the next two and a half years, Mohr said the department plans to reinvest those savings back into communities with “evidence-based programs that make sense.”

From left, ODRC director Gary Mohr, ODMH director Tracy Plouck, and ODADAS director Orman Hall listen as members of Cuyahoga County’s Reentry Leadership make the case during a meeting at the Ohio State House that increased state funding for local reentry programs is essential to the success of Ohio Governor John Kasich’s prison reform plans.

He discussed the potential for “mini grants” to invest prison savings into community corrections and reentry programs and asked Denihan to appoint a representative from the Coalition to “help us develop the effort to deploy services statewide.”

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