Butler County Sheriff’s Office corrections officers Waylon Thomas and Hannah McCarthy stand in the control room of the old Butler County Court Street Jail that was re-opened recently, in part because a new law takes effect July 1 that prohibits judges from sending felony five offenders to prison. Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tony Dwyer said they also have more contract prisoners than local ones, a situation that requires a careful balancing act between pulling in more revenue for boarding inmates and having to hire more people full-time. One floor of the jail is in operation and another floor is ready for new inmates. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Butler County now voluntarily housing low-level felony offenders in its jail

The Targeted Community Alternative to Prison program was instituted a year ago in part as a cost-saving measure for the state, to reduce the prison populations. A 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, with the idea that lasting rehabilitation is more likely to occur at the local level than in state prisons.

Gov. Mike DeWine removed the mandatory requirement when he introduced his biennium budget and the legislature didn’t change it. Butler County Common Pleas Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison said the sheriff found the program worthwhile.

RELATED: Butler County has been forced by Ohio to house more inmates, but new funding is coming

“We got a request from the sheriff that he wanted to continue, he thought it was good for the county and he asked for the court’s support in continuing the TCAP,” Gilkison said.

Gilkison said officials are hoping to offer offenders even more help so they can live successful lives after they are released.

“The sheriff’s office wants to add in some more reentry programming so that when these TCAP offenders are getting released into the community, they are getting hooked up with resources and hopefully we can make them more successful,” he said. “When the Department of Corrections releases these low-level ones they get turned back to our community with nothing.”

Early cost estimates for the program last year were as high as $3.8 million. 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, could be spent on housing inmates, and the rest had to be spent on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other programs. The county has $335,522 left to spend of the first grant.

Sheriff’s Officer Finance Director Vickie Barger said the county will begin receiving the $2.5 million from the state in eight quarterly increments of $309,587 soon, and it has until 2022 to spend that money.

Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Keith Spaeth said many officials “griped” about TCAP when it was introduced last year but the county got “addicted to the money” because it allowed them to pay for a new electronic monitoring system. Overall he said the program has been a success, and as long as the state keeps paying for it, the county will participate.

“Everybody griped about it, including me, and were displeased by it because the state was forcing the counties to fund the incarceration costs for these F-5s,” he said. “But in return, we used that money to fund the (electronic monitoring system), which arguably is keeping people out of jail and allowing them to maintain their job and keep the community safe at the same time.”

Barger said the county has between 30 and 35 people on electronic monitoring at a given time, and the new money will allow it to expand the program.

The county commissioners approved the grant agreement with the state this week. Commissioner T.C. Rogers said he knows the county could incur some costs if the number of housed offenders increases and the state funding isn’t enough.

“I think this is a case that if you don’t spend money one way, it can cost you more in other ways,” Rogers said.

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