Ohio think tank leads the way on criminal justice reform

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The Buckeye Institute has been named a finalist for Atlas Network’s 2018 Templeton Freedom Award.

Too often, lives are defined by a single mistake.

This is a story about human compassion, redemption, and commonsense solutions to complex public policy issues. It is a story about changing outdated, unjust, and arbitrary laws at the state level.

The Buckeye Institute is endeavoring to fix a broken criminal justice system, law by law — and it is succeeding. This small think tank in Ohio has been relentless in its quest to protect the rights of the accused and to save Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars.

Too often, lives are defined by a single mistake. The Buckeye Institute endeavored to change this and fix a broken criminal justice system. This small think tank in Ohio has been relentless in its quest to protect the rights of the accused and to save Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars.

Buckeye’s efforts have blazed a trail to reverse Ohio’s growth trend in incarceration by shrinking the state’s prison population to below 50,000, dramatically slashing the recidivism rate from 40 to 27 percent, reducing prison admissions by nearly 10 percent, expanding opportunities for thousands of people leaving prison, and redirecting $40 million to Ohio communities for the treatment of addiction and mental health issues. As a result, Ohio’s prison admissions rate has now hit a 27-year low.

The Buckeye Institute’s innovative policy victories are ensuring that prosperity and opportunity are available to all Ohioans, who are now much freer and less likely to become inadvertently ensnared by the criminal justice system.

“We are grateful and honored to be recognized by Atlas Network for our tireless work on criminal justice reform,” said Robert Alt, president and chief executive officer of The Buckeye Institute. “Since 2013, The Buckeye Institute has endeavored to build the nation’s best and most successful criminal justice reform effort at the state level. In just five years, Ohio has passed more, and more significant, criminal justice reform legislation than any other state in the country. Buckeye’s public policy accomplishments and the left-right coalition we built to advance these innovative ideas have had tremendous impact in protecting the rights of the accused, effectively rehabilitating offenders, and reducing the cost of Ohio’s criminal justice system to taxpayers. We hope our unique model for criminal justice reform will serve as an example for other states to follow.”

A diverse coalition leader

The Buckeye Institute has served as coalition leader among a handful of key state legislators, the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (which oversees the state’s prison system and is the employer of state employees), ACLU Ohio, and Justice Action Network.

Beginning in 2014, Buckeye worked with Ohio policymakers on the nation’s first mens rea reform package. The reform requires the government to prove that the defendant had the requisite mental state for each element of the crime. For crimes already on the books that did not contain an existing mental state requirement, a default “reckless” standard is applied retroactively. But if the legislature fails to include a criminal intent requirement in a new crime, then that crime is void — which Buckeye claims is the strongest reform in the country — and provides meaningful protection to the accused.

Two years later in 2016 came another major reform package crafted by Buckeye and passed into law (with unanimous consent in the Ohio Senate) — this one concerning civil asset forfeiture in Ohio. Under the new law, property valued at less than $15,000 cannot be seized without a criminal conviction, which eliminates most civil asset forfeiture, since the average seizure involved assets of less than $2,500. Additionally, the standard of proof required to seize property was raised from “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” Substantial restrictions were also placed on local law enforcement agencies’ ability to participate in federal “equitable sharing programs” that are frequently used to circumvent legal protections.

Justice advocates pursue reform solutions in Ohio. The Buckeye Institute, The Coalition for Public Safety, and The Ohio Justice and Policy Center host a conversation with policymakers and leading law enforcement practitioners on approaches to sensible justice and public safety. Photo Credit: The Buckeye Institute.

Next came the Targeted Community Alternatives (T-CAP) to Prison in 2017. Fueled by Buckeye’s research, state policymakers codified the T-CAP program in Ohio’s FY 2018-19 budget, which allows non-violent, non-sexual, non-trafficking felony offenders sentenced to less than one year to be rehabilitated through treatment programs, probation, jail, and other local programs.

Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is now granting money back to the counties — resulting in savings by reducing the costly expense of housing low-level offenders in prison. As a result of this reform, Ohio’s prison admissions are now at their lowest levels in 27 years, and significant savings for the state (and taxpayers) have been achieved by preventing the building of an additional prison.

“The remarkable work of The Buckeye Institute shows it's possible to thread the needle, and create better outcomes for the accused and their families, while also achieving improvements in public safety and budgetary savings,” said Brad Lips, CEO of Atlas Network.

Also in 2017 came probation reform, when in FY 2018-19 the state limited the time a low-level offender could be sent to prison for technical probation violations such as being late to a meeting with a probation officer, drinking alcohol, or breaking curfew. Buckeye was also successful in removing barriers to employment for ex-offenders. A key driver of recidivism is the inability to secure and keep a job, and a felony conviction carries with it more than 800 distinct collateral consequences — including numerous restrictions on ex-offenders’ ability to obtain occupational licenses — many with little or no connection to the offense that they committed or their continuing threat to the community.

Buckeye supported changes to Ohio’s Certificate of Qualification for Employment program, allowing individuals with criminal records a better shot at obtaining an occupational license in their chosen career field. This change in the law allows individualized assessment, protecting public safety while giving ex-offenders a fair chance.

Reviewing, rewriting the entire state’s criminal code

Buckeye was also invited to advise Ohio’s Criminal Justice Recodification Committee (2016-2017), which was tasked by the Ohio Legislature to review the state’s entire criminal code and develop recommendations to make Ohio safer and more just. Buckeye’s legal fellow and criminal justice expert Daniel J. Dew worked with the committee’s chairman, Judge Fred Pepple, and his staff to provide research and support on reforms. The result of the collaboration was nearly 4,000 pages of draft legislation — substantially written, reviewed, and revised directly by Buckeye — which now serves as the template for numerous pieces of reform legislation that have been introduced in the Ohio Legislature.

Final Report of the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee.

One of those pieces of legislation passed in June 2018 with Senate Bill 66, which expands eligibility and opportunity for record sealing to give non-violent offenders a chance at a fresh start, increases opportunities for treatment rather than punishment, and makes rehabilitation a goal.

These reforms help to ensure that a one-time mistake will not follow people for their entire lives, which is a barrier to securing employment and housing. It provides the opportunity for people to turn their lives around and become contributing members of society.

About The Buckeye Institute:
Columbus, Ohio-based Buckeye Institute was founded in 1989. It is an independent research and educational institution — a think tank — whose mission is to advance free-market public policy in the states. The staff at Buckeye accomplish the organization’s mission by performing timely and reliable research on key issues, compiling and synthesizing data, formulating sound free-market policies, and promoting those solutions for implementation in Ohio and replication across the country.

About Atlas Network’s Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2018 finalists:
Awarded since 2004, Atlas Network’s Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and will be presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on Nov. 8 in New York City at the Intrepid Museum Manhattan. The winning organization will receive a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists will receive $25,000 prizes. The finalists for Atlas Network’s 2018 Templeton Freedom Award are: