Release set for first batch of prisoners under ruling

CLEVELAND (AP) - The Ohio Parole Board has set release dates for the first batch of prisoners to be freed following new parole hearings required by a state Supreme Court decision.
While Ohio prisons are over capacity, it's not yet clear whether the releases will help ease the problem and the state budget crisis.
The board has recommended parole for 38 prisoners following new hearings since late March. Four others were told their sentences will be continued, and one is being sent to a halfway house.
It could take up to a year to complete the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 hearings. Board officials say several hundred prisoners could be released.
"If they qualify for release, we want them out," prisons
Director Reginald Wilkinson said earlier this month at a Kent State University symposium on the economics of criminal-justice policies.
The court on Dec. 18 ordered the nine-member parole board to stop calculating hearing dates based on the offenses for which prisoners were indicted, instead of the offenses for which the inmates were convicted.
The rehearings were spurred in part by lawsuits filed on behalf of inmates sentenced before passage in 1996 of Ohio's "truth-in-sentencing" law.
The law resulted in defendants being given definite terms of imprisonment, bypassing the parole board, but left defendants who had been sentenced to indefinite terms before 1996 at the board's mercy.
The state prison system is expected to be at 126 percent of its capacity with the planned shutdown of Lima Correctional
Institution, spokeswoman JoEllen Culp said. The Orient Correctional Institution closed last year.
While it costs about $22,000 a year to house an inmate, each release doesn't automatically translate into that amount of savings, said Fritz Rauchenberg, former head of research for the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission. Most of the costs, such as running the building and employing guards, are fixed.
"A prison costs more or less the same amount of money whether you have 1,000 inmates or 2,000 inmates," Rauchenberg said. "Until you reach a point where you can comfortably close a facility or close a wing, it's very difficult to save a lot of money."
About 450 inmates, or about 1 percent of the state prison
population, would have to be released for savings in the prison budget, he said.
Documents passed out during a March 28 training session for
Parole Board members and hearing officers suggest that the board is embracing an ideological shift that focuses less on punishment and more on sentencing parity and risk to the public.
The training documents say, "If an inmate does not present an unreasonable threat or risk to the safety of the community, strong consideration should be given to release at minimum eligibility."
The board itself also is changing. Six of the nine members were appointed by Wilkinson within the last two years.
"The people I know on the board from their work earlier are not hang-'em-high, keep-'em-forever kind of Parole Board types," Rauchenberg said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)