Apr 15, 2024 - News

Ohio's prison population slowly rising again

Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Ohio's prison population has begun creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels.

The big picture: Incarceration rates across the country plummeted during the early pandemic era as courts slowed down and prisons paused transfers.

  • The latest data from the Department of Justice suggests the dip may be short lived.

Why it matters: Critics have long complained about Ohio's overcrowded state prison system, which the ACLU says was built to house 37,000 people but until the pandemic consistently held closer to 50,000.

What they're saying: "Obviously the spigot got turned back on when the court system reopened again," Gary Daniels, the chief lobbyist at the ACLU of Ohio, told Axios.

By the numbers: 45,313 people were in state or federal prisons in Ohio in 2022, per the DOJ's data. That's an 11% drop compared to 2012.

  • Between 2021 and 2022, the trend began reversing, with the state and federal prison population rising a little more than half a percentage point, per the DOJ.

Zoom out: Ohio is not alone. The U.S. prison population rose 2.1% between 2021 and 2022, marking "the first increase in the combined state and federal prison population in almost a decade," a recent DOJ report found.

Flashback: During the pandemic, some nonviolent offenders were released or moved to home confinement in an effort to curb viral spread in prisons, which affected not just prisoners, but also prison staffers and surrounding communities.

Friction point: "Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there's a lot of research that shows those kinds of health releases did not have any real negative impact on public safety," David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, an advocacy group, told NPR.

  • "It is disappointing that we're seeing this increase in populations around the country because we have proven that we can have reductions and be safe."

Reality check: The U.S. prison population remains extremely high compared to the years before the Nixon-era "war on drugs" and "tough on crime" politics took hold.

Zoom in: In Ohio, the most common charge for people entering a state prison is drug possession, accounting for 15.5% of all active sentences, per a report by the ACLU of Ohio.

What we're watching: High incarceration rates have emerged as a focus of this year's Franklin County prosecutor's race.

  • Democratic nominee Shayla Favor has pledged to "minimize court involvement and unnecessary incarceration for low level offenses."
  • Republican John Rutan has said he would approach low level offenses with compassion but also seek at least some jail time for people who commit felonies because it's important for them to "see the inside of a jail so they gain a great appreciation of future consequences."
Change in prison populations, 2021 to 2022
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
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