The Buckeye Institute's criminal justice reform work wins 2018 North America Liberty Award

Buckeye Institute President and CEO Robert Alt speaks on the panel of finalists for the 2018 Templeton Freedom Award at Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner in New York City, Nov. 8 2018.

The Columbus, Ohio-based Buckeye Institute has been selected as this year’s winner of Atlas Network’s prestigious North America Liberty Award for its work advancing meaningful criminal justice reform in Ohio. This is the inaugural year of the $5,000 award, which recognizes the outstanding work of an Atlas Network partner with demonstrable impact in liberating enterprise, promoting prosperity, and removing barriers to human flourishing in North America.

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.

“Accepting Atlas Network’s inaugural North America Liberty Award is a tremendous honor for The Buckeye Institute," said Robert Alt, president and chief executive officer of The Buckeye Institute. “We are extraordinarily proud of the unprecedented accomplishments we have achieved in reforming Ohio’s criminal justice system law-by-law over the past five years. To be recognized for this success helps us shine a light even further into the dark crevices of injustice. Buckeye’s work is proof that powerful left-right coalitions led by state think tanks with true legal expertise combined with an unrelenting focus on sound public policy including greater protections for the rights of the accused, cost-effectively rehabilitating offenders, and reducing the astronomical cost of the criminal justice system can make an astounding difference. The Buckeye Institute’s business model has proven to be the best example for how to do criminal justice reform in a world that desperately needs us to solve these seemingly intractable problems. Buckeye is committed to setting the gold standard for the nation on this issue, and we strongly encourage everyone to join us in this worthy cause to advance liberty and change lives forever.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

About Atlas Network's Regional Liberty Awards
Atlas Network's Regional Liberty Awards annually recognize think tanks that have made important contributions to improving the landscape for enterprise and entrepreneurship in their regions. Atlas Network selects winners from each of the following world regions: Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, and Middle East & North Africa.

About The Buckeye Institute
Founded in 1989, The Buckeye Institute 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
Washington-based Atlas Network is a nonprofit organization that strengthens the worldwide freedom movement by connecting more than 475 independent partners in over 90 countries that share the vision of a free, prosperous, and peaceful world where limited governments defend the rule of law, private property, and free markets.