A new state law regarding inmates will cost Butler County more money. Here’s why.

For the past month, large counties like Butler County have been forced to house low-level felony offenders locally rather than shipping them off to prison.At least part of the $600,000 appropriation that county commissioners approved this week is for the new, unfunded state mandate.

A new state law took effect July 1 that requires 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 state expense-saving measure. Butler County judges sentenced 15 such offenders to the jail in the first month under the new law.

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The county commissioner-approved budget addition of $600,270 is going to pay for salaries and benefits to staff the newly re-opened Court Street Jail. Butler County Sheriff Chief Tony Dwyer said all the money isn’t going to add new people, it is for overtime and other tools they use to manage the jail population for the remainder of the year. And the new law isn’t the only reason they re-opened the jail.

Dwyer said the money the county is spending opening the old jail should be more than offset by revenues it can collect from contract inmates — prisoners they house for other police agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Pike County. Dwyer said the county is anticipating more than $8 million in jail revenue this year, given the added space now available.

The total on the expense side is still unknown since the new state program is just underway. Originally, county officials estimated the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) program could cost as much as $3.8 million a year, but now officials are anticipating housing about 160 people in jail a year at a cost of about $1.3 million. The $1.2 million grant it received from the state will cover about $619,175 of the jail bill, because only half the money can be used housing prisoners and the rest has to be spent on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other programs.

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Common Pleas Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison said not only will the grant amount not cover the expected annual cost, the funds are not guaranteed. An announcement from the state department of corrections last July stated funding amounts to counties “assume” prison populations will average 49,104 this fiscal year and 47,538 next year and that “ODRC reserves the right to amend the (TCAP) grant program should those population averages not be realized.”

“They basically said if the prison population doesn’t get reduced that money they are giving to the counties could go back to Department of Corrections,” Gilkison said. “There is no guarantee that will continue to fund the TCAP program.”

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 5” offenders whose sentence is a year or less.

John Luetz, legislative counsel for the county commissioners association, said those kinds of offenders have become the problem for the state’s budget. He said these inmates don’t fit the mold of a typical prisoner and require DRC to “adjust its management practices and leads to costing DRC additional funding.”

“Their funding is getting tighter and tighter and tighter,” Luetz said. “And the general prison population is increasing, so they finally kind of like got their backs against the wall.”

The other goal of the program is based on the premise these types of offenders won’t benefit in the long run from a short stint in prison.

Katrina Wilson, coordinator for Butler-Warren Reentry Coalition, told this news organization previously that this program is exactly what was needed.

“Some believe introducing this type of program will permit violent offenders to ‘fall through the cracks’ and land back in our community. I don’t believe … implementing this program makes our communities less safe. In fact, I believe just the opposite,” Wilson said. “If we do not find a fix to the problem of over-committing low-level, non-violent offenders, we will not have room in our jails and prisons for violent offenders who pose real threats to society.”

There are many programs already directed at helping the county jail inmates here overcome barriers to leading a law-abiding life — like mental health, substance abuse help and other rehabilitative efforts.

Dwyer said 70 to 80 percent of their inmates are repeat visitors.

“You don’t reach a lot of people even when they’re incarcerated and you’re giving them life skill training and stuff, it doesn’t tend to take,” he said. “But it’s an effort we still continue with us, the mental health board and a lot of people that help us with the programming in our facility… Just about everybody that’s in our jail has been in our jail, you don’t have that many new faces.”

Scott Rasmus, executive director of the county mental health and addiction services board, said the board recently got some outcome statistics from one of its programs at the jail. The program links inmates with outside services to help with addiction, mental health and other issues. He said it looks promising, although he acknowledged it is just a “snapshot.”

He said the program has existed for about two years and hundreds of inmates have gone through it. A year ago, the recidivism rate was 25 percent, and in the last six months it has dropped to around seven percent.

“At least there is a good sign there is some programming out there that may be effective,” Rasmus said but added they might need to tweak the program with the introduction of felony offenders — rather than the misdemeanor inmates usually housed there — into the jail population.

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