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Policy and Practice Briefs: Violent–Nonviolent Offender Boundaries

Since the late 1960s, various policy and program initiatives have pushed the case for increasing the use of community-based sanctions to replace the institutionalization of jail or prison confinement. These thrusts have taken various guises: Some have argued for “alternatives to incarceration” to replace imprisonment as an option of choice; others have stressed community-based options to relieve the pressures on jail and prison systems caused by institutional crowding or overcrowding; and yet others have argued that these options are simply sui generis, or simply good on their own accord.

Out of the long-evolving development of these practices has come a familiar reprise, namely, that many “nonviolent offenders” can be safely released into the community, thus reducing the use of imprisonment, relieving jail or prison population pressures, and/ or establishing new and creative sanction choices. Given the scope of jail and prison growth in the United States, and the scale of correctional crowding over the past few decades, it is surprising how little work has been done, or has been highlighted, that describes this population of nonviolent prisoners.

In recent years, Ohio has added an interesting – and perhaps insufficiently acknowledged -- wrinkle to this matter with the release of reports that assess “truly nonviolent” (TNV) offenders in the state’s prison system. Also of importance is that these reports provide statistical evidence on the sociodemographic and the court, correctional, and criminal histories of this population of offenders. Ohio has issued at least four studies (a fifth is expected shortly) of TNV offenders since this research initiative started in the early 1990s, when the state began reporting related intake data. At the base of this project is the idea that it is valuable, for policy and program development, as well as for offender management, to have solid information about those offenders who are sentenced to community versus institutional corrections. By identifying its TNV population, Ohio is helping community corrections practitioners target appropriate programming needs in the state.

In the most recent of these studies, Truly Non-Violent Offenders Admitted to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) in 2008, researchers Jim Bates, Reeda Boyd, Ronnie Easter, Cynthia Gonzalez, and Vicky Muncy of the ODRC’s Bureau of Research Office of Policy and Offender Reentry examine 2008 intake data to describe the state’s population of TNV offenders. “Truly non-violent” offenders, according to this report, are those offenders who have “no violent current conviction or indictment offense, no prior felony conviction for a violent or sex offense, no gun crime, and no weapon involvement in the(ir) current offense.”

According to these Ohio researchers, 31.9 percent (N=1,038) of the 3,254 prisoners surveyed in the state’s 2008 Intake Study can be classified as TNV offenders. Approximately 25 percent of the TNV population are females; 40 percent are African-American (less than two percent are from other non-white ethnic or cultural groups); nearly 70 percent were single when they were arrested; about 40 percent were high school dropouts, another 40 percent were high school graduates (including GED recipients), and 20 percent have some college or graduated from college; and slightly less than one half of this TNV population was unemployed when arrested.

How many of Ohio’s TNV offenders suffer from mental illness? Overall, the report states that 26.9 percent of this eight-county sample consists of TNV offenders, with larger percentages in urban areas, less in rural areas. Unfortunately, the report does not identify the actual number of “mentally ill” TNV offenders, although it does include further information on TNV offenders’ alcohol and drug abuse behavior. Nearly 50 percent (50 percent men, 4 percent women) have drug-related charges. No specific information is given concerning TNV offenders with co-occurring disorders. Little information is given about the nature or extent of these offenders mental illness other than whether they were self-admitted, diagnosed, or treated as mentally ill.

The criminal history of Ohio’s TNV offenders is particularly interesting, given the general suggestion that these persons are suitable for community sanctions or community release. Probation violations accounted for 43.5 percent of the TNV group.  Approximately 67 percent of the group had no prior incarceration, but 33 percent had from one to five previous periods of incarceration. Nearly 73 percent of the TNV population had been sentenced to community supervision, with revocation being the outcome for 54 percent of this group.

Ohio officials report that the percentage of TNV offenders in the larger general population of prisoners has dropped over the course of these studies, starting at approximately 44% and arriving, most recently, at just more than 29%. The full meaning of this dip is unclear, but it seems fair to say that this research has helped Ohio reduce its share of “unnecessarily” incarcerated non-violent offenders. It will be interesting to learn more about how this project evolved and how it has, in fact, affected the nature, and perhaps the size, of the state’s prison population. Also of interest is the extent of mentally ill offenders in Ohio’s TNV population and what the state has done to place them in community corrections or provide them programming in the state’s jails or prisons.

Posted Wed, Mar 2 2011 12:20 PM by Tracey Vessels


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