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Prison alternative grant program may get analyzed to ensure it’s not costing Ohio county

Butler County has received a total of $6.2 million from the state for the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) program for housing Felony 5 prisoners

By Denise G. Callahan
Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio

BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio — Butler County has received a total of $6.2 million from the state for the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) program for housing Felony 5 prisoners, and the commissioners are asking for a cost/benefit analysis.

A state law took effect in 2018 that required Ohio’s 10 largest counties — Butler County is No. 7 — to stop sending non-violent felony offenders who commit low level crimes to prison, with the idea that lasting rehabilitation is more likely to occur at the local level than in state prisons.

Gov. Mike DeWine removed the mandatory requirement three years ago. The commissioners, Butler County Common Pleas Court judges and sheriff all agreed to continue the program for felony 5 offenders.

Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News he would like to see a cost/benefit analysis of the program, to ensure the county isn’t having to pay for the program that benefits the state by lowering prison populations.

He said since TCAP has been in place for several years and he wants to make sure what often happens with programs like this “we end up on the losing side of the revenue” hasn’t. He said “I just want to see justification” for continuing the voluntary program.

“I want to make sure it’s not the bait and switch deal that we usually get from the state or from Washington,” Dixon said. “Here we’re going to fund this program, don’t worry about it, it’s going to save all kinds of money. Then as the years go past, the ones that wanted it and created it, the funding from them keeps decreasing and our costs keeping increasing.”

The sheriff’s Finance Director Vickie Barger keeps the books on the TCAP program — the county receives nearly $2.5 million every two years — and after closing out the last grant cycle they had spent all of the money on the following: — $1.46 million on jail housing — $549,443 for personnel and general operating expenses — $185,349 for electronic monitoring — $160,074 for equipment — $119,490 for residential treatment programs

Commissioner T.C. Rogers echoed Dixon’s thoughts, “Every time the state wants us to do something, we need to be conscious and analyze it and make sure it doesn’t become an unfunded mandate.”

The state mandates that no more than half the county’s grant can pay for the actual cost to house the prisoners. The rest is to be spent on alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and other programs. Offenders receive services designed to help them overcome barriers such as mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of education and a host of others. The daily cost to house inmates is $72.

The county has used the money to start the ankle-monitoring program and salaries for additional probation officers who were needed to keep track of offenders in the community.

With some of the new round of funding the Common Pleas Court plans to use $500,000 to upgrade audio and visual equipment — much of which is a couple decades old — in all of the courtrooms. They will use special projects funds to make up the difference for the $700,000 project.

Barger told the Journal-News she can never know for sure how each cost allocation will shake out year to year, but they promised the court they could have the allocation because they didn’t get anything under the previous grant. If she falls short on any of the categories, like inmate programming, she can use commissary or other money if need be.

“I have other non-general fund ways to pay for inmate programming, if push came to shove and I needed money,” she said. “But I don’t think I will because we scrambled to sometimes use all the money and you don’t want to give any money back.”

Administrative Judge Keith Spaeth told the Journal-News he would be “more than happy” to work with the commissioners if they want more information. He said the program has been worthwhile, since judges here were rarely sending the low-level scofflaws to prison anyway, and now they have extra money for projects like the new courtroom technology and “we’re not putting the burden on our local taxpayers.”

“If you looked at the cost benefit analysis you’d say hmm, the judges in Butler County really weren’t sending those people to prison very much anyway, for low-level, non-violent felonies,” Spaeth said. “Then here comes the state of Ohio willing to give us $2.5 million for other valuable projects. I would say that anybody that did the cost benefit analysis and looked at it historically as to what was happening before and what’s happening after, I’d say it’s like easy money.”

The law was also aimed at lowering prison populations, a state expense-saving measure. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the state prison system said or fiscal year 2022 TCAP resulted in a bed savings of approximately 1,070 for felony 5 commitments and approximately $4.4 million in marginal cost savings last fiscal year.

Marginal costs are things like meals, medications, uniforms and bedding other items used to care for inmates.

“If not for the prison bed savings, our population would be higher resulting in a higher operational cost and the possible construction of new prison space,” Smith told the Journal-News previously. “Our costs would be higher today if not for the bed savings associated with TCAP.”

The judges originally balked at the program because it removes judicial discretion in sentencing and Spaeth said some of them still aren’t keen on it, so if the commissioners decided to stop the program there probably wouldn’t be much push back from the court.

Last year the state legislature considered making TCAP mandatory again statewide and adding offenders convicted of fourth-degree felonies to the program. They ultimately did not agree to make the program mandatory, but gave counties the option to keep certain Felony 4 offenders in jails if they choose.

Keeping felony four offenders home from prison is not something the court here will allow. Fourth-degree felony crimes are things like domestic violence, stealing a car and breaking and entering with the intent to commit a crime like theft. Typical Felony 5 offenses are felony non support of dependents; theft; possession of drugs; and receiving stolen property.

“Felony 4s are a more serious offense and those people need to go to prison,” Spaeth said. “It’s not because they had a little bit of heroin in their pocket and they’re an addict, felony 4s are traffickers.”