Butler County is running out of state funding to house low-level criminals

Butler County will likely run out of state funding for housing low-level criminals by the end of March, making the new prison law yet another unfunded mandate, officials say.

The county received a $1.2 million grant from the state to help pay for housing and rehabilitating non-violent felony five offenders, who would previously have gone to prison. Only half the grant, or $619,175, can be spent on housing inmates, the rest has to be spent on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other programs.

With a $229,464 appropriation approved by the commissioners this week, nearly all the state jail funding — $396,792 has been spent since the law’s inception last summer — is gone.

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“They come up with all these plans and programs and say don’t worry about it, we’re going to take care of you, we’re going to make sure it doesn’t impact your finances,” said Commissioner Don Dixon. “That’s just for a short time. The end of the story is, ‘Gee we’re sorry, we don’t have the money but you’re going to have to continue to do it anyway.’”

The county spent $62,136 more during the fourth quarter of last year boarding the mandated inmates than the $167,328 spent for 2,324 inmate days during the first three months of the program. It is impossible to predict whether the numbers will continue to increase, according to Butler County Sheriff’s Chief Tony Dwyer.

“We continue to monitor it,” Dwyer said. “The whole time we have been talking about this it’s been a work in progress.”

The law took effect last July, requiring Ohio’s 10 largest counties — Butler County is No. 7 — to stop sending non-violent felony offenders who commit low-level crimes to prison, with the belief that lasting rehabilitation is more likely to happen at the local level than in state prisons.

The law was also aimed at lowering prison populations, a measure that the fiscal analysis of the budget bill that enacted the new law said would save “tens of millions of dollars annually” .

Dixon and Commissioner T.C. Rogers are both hoping newly sworn-in Gov. Mike DeWine, who is the former state attorney general, will address this problem in the new budget.

“Governor DeWine stated several times during the campaign that he’s conscious of what happens at the local level, and from his past experience he’s going to do what he can to make things better,” Rogers said. “We’ll see what that means with the next budget coming out.”

Butler County has not been informed if more grant money is coming. For now, Dwyer said all he can count on is $1.2 million. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections spokesperson JoEllen Smith said future funding will be decided in the upcoming biennial budget.

The new law doesn’t apply to people whose offense requires mandatory prison time, was violent or sexual in nature or involved drug trafficking. The law only applies to non-violent “felony five” offenders whose sentence is a year or less.

Aside from personnel costs, food and other expenses related to the Targeted Community Alternative to Prison (T-CAP) program, the sheriff also reopened the Court Street Jail last summer — the costs were mainly for cleaning the old building — to handle the influx of new inmates, but also to house revenue-generating contract prisoners.

MORE: Butler County reopens shuttered jail to prepare for new law

Offenders are either on electronic monitoring — a program funded by the grant that debuted in the county because of the new law — or housed in jail. Dwyer said there are 23 people on electronic monitoring and officials are in the process of expanding the program to handle 30 or more. The sheriff has spent $186,000, from the non-jail portion of the state grant, establishing the program. He said the new program is a good alternative to paying $72 a day housing people in the jail.

“It’s been successful, it’s an alternative I think that’s good to have for the judges to use…,” Dwyer said. “Across the country electronic monitoring has been very effective and I think it’ll be effective here. It’s a balancing act, do you use electronic monitoring, versus straight release, versus incarceration… I think it’s just another alternative to give the justice system to use, to be as effective as you can in managing the security and safety versus the economic impact.”

While at the jail or on monitoring, offenders receive all or a combination of services designed to help them overcome barriers such as mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of education and a host of others.

Wayne Gilkison, common pleas court administrator, said the county already had a vast array of programs for people on probation to better themselves, before the new law was passed, so they didn’t need any grant funding for the court’s responsibility in the program.

“I know there are other counties in the state that did not have intensive supervised probation or a lot of treatment alternatives that they were going to use some of this money for, but we had it already,” Gilkison said. “We’ve been using it, we continue to use it. Our supervision style is evidence-based, we try to target and change what makes the people criminals.”

New alternative to prison law by the numbers

Butler County was awarded $1.2 million to pay for a new state law that keeps low-level felony offenders out of prison. Only half of the grant can be used for housing inmates at the county jail, the rest must be spent on incarceration alternatives like electronic monitoring and rehabilitation efforts.

$619,175: State grant for housing inmates

$396,792: Expenditures for first half year of the program:

5,511: Total inmate days

$72: Daily jail cost

$186,000: Dollars spent on new electronic monitoring program

Source: Butler County

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