Ohio Can Show the Country How to Fix the Criminal Justice System and Pandemic All at Once
Ohioans aren’t strangers to this cause. Early in the pandemic, headlines dubbed Marion Correctional Institution the “nation’s biggest COVID-19 hotspot.” More than 1,800 prisoners tested positive for the virus early on, not to mention law enforcement officials and staff that were exposed.
The top recommendation from these attorneys general and experts? Protect everyone’s health by limiting in-person contact points across the criminal justice system, from arrests to parole, and other touchpoints. But the second solution is tied to the first: reduce the number of arrests without endangering public safety. In short, warnings, summons or citations should replace arrests where possible.
This is where more Ohio can continue to shine as an example for the nation in how to address a crisis of confidence in our law enforcement and the ongoing pandemic. Many counties have already made promising strides in sensible criminal justice reform—Butler, Marion, Stark, Wood and many others—but there is still plenty to do in Lucas County, for example, as it simultaneously tries to flatten the curve of coronavirus cases.
As health commissioner Eric Zgodzinski noted, now is not the time to let up on preventative measures. Instead, as the AGs recommended, it is time to add more measures that will work to keep people safe.
In recent years, the county has worked to reduce its jail population and to make the justice system more equitable. As the next push in its efforts, it should expand the use of a citation program and use it as an easy and already available tool to further reduce and safely decrease arrests, minimize disruptions to families and communities and save taxpayer dollars.
Simply defined, citations are an alternative to arrest in which they allow those charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses to pay a fine or appear in court in lieu of a formal arrest and booking. Generally, this is preferable because avoiding the use of detention has several obvious benefits. For example, in Franklin County the use of citations has already decreased its jail population by 300 inmates. These reductions translate to significant cost savings: a 2015 study found that the average cost per incarcerated individual in Ohio was $26,509 annually. This means that if even five individuals are cited rather than jailed, Lucas County taxpayers can save over $130,000 each year.
Additionally, detention not only costs money in terms of daily upkeep for the incarcerated individual but it also removes them from the community, their families and the economy, all of which have their own associated costs. Using citations therefore helps to mitigate this damage, as it permits the defendant to return to the community, to continue working and to keep caring for personal responsibilities, such as child rearing or elder care.
Given all these benefits, it’s important to point out that expanded use of this mechanism would not require any major legislative overhaul. In fact, Ohio law enforcement officers already have the authority to issue a citation instead of initiating a full arrest, which is why counties that neighbor Lucas that were mentioned earlier already use it in a wide array of situations.
As Ohioans work hard to reduce transmission of the coronavirus pandemic and return to normal life as much as possible, they must use every tool at their disposal. Considering the potential benefits at virtually no increased cost, it’s time for Lucas County to join its neighbors by implementing a similar program. Doing so is the kind of win/win that benefits defendants, law and order entities, and taxpayers, and will also end mask mandates.