COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's prisons chief is calling for more compassion toward wrongdoers as he continues a push to reduce the state's inmate population.
Too often an "us vs. them" mentality gets in the way of instituting programs to prevent people from going to prison and to keep former inmates from returning, corrections director Gary Mohr told a legislative prison inspection committee Thursday in remarks that at times were closer to a sermon than a speech.
"Our hearts need to be softened to some degree," said Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "We have to think about the sense of forgiveness."
When Mohr started his prisons career 41 years ago, Ohio had 8,300 inmates in seven prisons, including 291 female inmates. The total now is holding steady at about 50,000 in 27 prisons, including 4,200 female prisoners.
The state's incarceration rate was 5.3 per 100,000, compared to 68.1 today, said Mohr in a 40-minute speech to the bipartisan Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. Mohr is also dissatisfied that 1 in 4 state employees now work in adult corrections.
Society's tough-on-crime attitude doesn't match statistics showing violent crime at historic lows, he added. But Mohr also sees signs of optimism as commitments from the state's biggest counties drop thanks to the growth of community alternatives in urban areas. The next challenge is extending such programs to the remaining 82 counties where commitments have increased.
The state is taking advantage of programs seeking to better integrate prisoners into society, as well, Mohr said. And the expansion of Medicaid will help inmates as they re-enter communities.
Among other issues Mohr addressed:
—8,400 Ohio inmates spend less than a year in prison, a short period of time likely better served in communities in some form.
—1 in 4 inmates is a probation violator, a trend that needs to be reversed by giving judges more discretion when ex-offenders make mistakes.
—The high population numbers of some Ohio prisons is troubling and raises security concerns.
Under Gov. John Kasich, the state has made efforts to slow the inmate population by easing penalties on first-time offenders, providing some early-release opportunities and boosting community-based options.
At the same time, the state's painkiller and heroin addiction epidemic has led to a rash of thefts, burglaries and other crimes that have increased prosecutions.
It's important to understand efforts inmates are making to work their way back into the world, Mohr said.
"I believe there's an element of our society that do not believe that people with blue shirts and numbers on them are exactly the same level as us," he said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.