The Ohio Student Association’s (OSA) University of Cincinnati chapter hit the ground running Tuesday to explore more effective means to solve Ohio’s overcrowded prison system.
Today, the United States holds 22 percent of the world’s prison population despite holding just 4.4 percent of the world’s population. Ohio houses the fifth-largest prison population in the U.S., with prisons at over 130 percent of capacity costing 1.8 billion per year to operate.
This mass incarceration trend occurred through the Reagan administration’s “Tough on Crime” and “War on Drugs” initiatives in response to increased rates of burglary, grand theft auto and homicides in the early ’80s.
While overall crime rates decreased in the late ’90s, rates of incarceration continued to drastically increase, climbing to nearly 500 prisoners per 100,000 to 100 violent offenders at the same rate, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study.
Kevin O’Donnell, a state organizer for OSA, has traveled to 10 different campus chapters to advocate issues ranging from criminal justice and policing reform to student debt.
“We’re trying to build a political home for those who feel the system isn’t working,” O’Donnell said.
UC’s chapter will extend OSA’s mission by advocating an interwoven, two-prong issue: divesting in criminalization and investing in rehabilitation.
Jessica, a UC graduate student, walked the roughly 28 students in attendance through the first phase of activism: Ohio legislation needs to recategorize low-level drug possessions from felonies to misdemeanors and lessen penalties against prisoners on probation, better known as the “probation-prison pipeline.”
“This includes those who are late checking in with their probation officers,” she said. “We shouldn’t penalize those who often get out of prison and don’t have the means to afford a bus ride.”
The second phase would decrease the prison population and save Ohio nearly $100 million in associated costs, according to the presentation. The money saved would be invested in instituting rehabilitation programs in prison and creating a reward system of reduced sentences for prisoners who work toward their education or various trade skills.
“These are real key components to what we’re trying to do,” she said. “There is injustice in the world, but we’re trying to change this through dialogue with a diverse amount of people. We’re not trying to cater to one community.”
The presentation closed with students sharing their own experiences, whether challenging criminal injustice or being part of the problem.
“[We must] make sure to remind ourselves that we’re all connected through this issue,” said Alex Tabor, a graduate student in history and a host to the program’s discussion. “We’re here because this affects everyone – family, friends, neighbors – everyone.”