COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio's prison system has faced a glut of bad news in recent months, from inmate suicides to four homicides in a single prison in about a year, but long-term population growth trends are causing officials the most headaches.
Unforeseen challenges are dulling the impact of a 2011 sentencing law meant to lower the number of inmates, leading to fears that the state may need to spend millions to build a new prison after 2017, while pushing judges to rethink sentences and placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
The current prison population of about 50,300 hasn't budged since 2011, despite projections that it would drop to 47,000 by 2015 and continue to decline.
Ohio's inmate population could grow to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, according to Prisons director Gary Mohr. The state is currently at 131 percent of capacity and could hit 139 percent by 2019. Mohr warns California's system was declared unconstitutional at 140 percent, meaning federal courts could intervene and order expensive changes.
It's not that the 2011 law is failing. Challenges, including a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors, are holding back promises that the law would lower inmate population.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has said the courts are also part of the problem and called on judges to be more diligent about reducing the number of offenders behind bars.
The stakes are high because a growing prison population could cost taxpayers. The prisons budget of about $1.5 billion has been flat for the past several years, but that will likely change if population growth continues and costs go up, especially for inmates' mental health and medical needs.
The growing population projections come in the wake of recent controversies.
Death row inmate Billy Slagle hanged himself with a nylon belt Aug. 4, just days before his scheduled execution. Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro was found hanged by a bed sheet Sept. 3, just weeks into a life sentence. His death was declared a suicide, but a prisons report suggested he died as a result of autoerotic asphyxiation.
After the suspension of two guards, the correctional officers' union renewed understaffing complaints. The agency has about 6,400 guards for about 50,300 inmates, compared to more than 7,000 guards for 51,000 inmates five years ago.
Without a fix, Mohr warns, the state could need another prison starting in 2017. That would require millions of taxpayer dollars, not to mention the setback of warehousing individuals rather than turning them into productive members of society.
The scenario isn't without hope. Mohr is lobbying for changes to keep low-level offenders out of prison and reduce repeat offenders. He's got the ear of O'Connor, a former law-and-order prosecutor who has made sentencing changes one of her top priorities. Many budget-conscious lawmakers are in Mohr's corner.
He spent time last week optimistically discussing the opening of a prison reintegration program at Chillicothe Correctional Institution in southern Ohio. It gives eligible inmates activities to do eight to 12 hours a day -- from jobs to school -- in preparation for their release. It's the type of program Mohr considers crucial.
"I believe tomorrow can be better than today," Mohr said in discussing the new unit.
State budget officials, and Ohio taxpayers, hope he's right.