Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reducing Crime and Recidivism: A Major Step Forward

A number of months ago, I wrote about the critical issue of reinstating Medicaid benefits as inmates finish their sentences and reenter the community.

Terminating, and not reinstating those benefits, has had the negative and costly effect of contributing to high recidivism and crime. The pattern is simple: with Medicaid terminated, those leaving our jails with mental illnesses or other medical needs (and that's a lot of people)--and therefore those who have substantial medical or treatment requirements--rarely have a way to pay for them. Without that basic medical care, and in some cases medicines to treat mental illnesses, they will often quickly reoffend, end up in jail again, and continue the revolving door of repeat crimes and taxpayer dollars wasted.

Through the Criminal Justice Commission we've created, we pointed out that a handful of other states had begun to solve this issue (by having Medicaid be "suspended" during incarceration, but automatically reinstated on release, as opposed to terminated outright), and that we should do the same. I sat down with Senator Bill Seitz to encourage him to take up this issue. And after some initial pushback by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the Governor's office, after getting input from the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, began to administratively handle the issue.

Well, today, I have further GREAT news.

Thanks to Senator Seitz's leadership, a Bill (HB 215) passed both the Ohio House and Senate that, among other things, adds Ohio to the small number of reform states that now "suspend" Medicaid, rather than terminate it, during incarceration. This means if a person has not lost eligibility for some other reason, as they reenter the community, those Medicaid benefits are automatically reinstated. And this greatly helps reduce their likelihood to reoffend (particularly those whose criminal behavior is related to a mental illness, addiction or other conditions).

In short, this is a measure that will reduce crime and recidivism, reduce demand on jailspace, and save taxpayer dollars--and it's now the law of the state. And it could not have come at a better time (though it will take some time to implement).

Thanks is owed to the County Commissioner Association of Ohio and the Governor's Office for understanding the importance of this issue, and particularly to Sen. Seitz for pushing it through the Ohio legislature so rapidly.

Deepest Condolences

A friend of mine was at the play and witnessed the tragedy that took place at Crossroads, and it was truly a horrifying and traumatic event. My heart sunk to hear the news this morning that the young woman passed away.

My deepest condolences go out to the family for this loss, and to the entire Crossroads community at this incredibly difficult moment.

(Note--because it needs to be said: While we all have gotten (too) used to negative and nasty internet/online/blog discussion around politics and other community issues, it is really sad and shameful to see some of the incredibly petty and mean-spirited reactions to this tragedy at the Enquirer's comment board).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Politics and County Jobs: A Dangerous Mix, Part II

I've been a little surprised by several of the responses to my prior posting on this issue, so I decided to do a little more checking, and to clear up come confusion. Besides basic notions of common sense, ethics and good government, it turns out there are far more rules around this than some people might realize. It's best if we all understand them as soon as possible.

First, as most know, there are two types of positions -- classified and unclassified.

1. The rules regarding "unclassified positions": under state law, unclassified positions essentially serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority (which varies depending on the department), and there are generally far fewer restrictions on their political activity and involvement. It is ultimately up to the "appointing authority" to establish such rules.

Here at the Board of County Commissioners, there are clear rules regarding the top management team for which we are the appointing authority (administrator, deputy administrators, department heads under the administrator, etc.). Although they are unclassified positions, these employees can NOT engage in partisan political activities concerning the office of the Board of County Commissioners, including participation in reelection campaigns of incumbents. This includes refraining from financial participation, donation of time, attendance at fundraising events, distributing campaign literature, etc.

This makes for a very clean system--and one I strongly support. Professional administrators and managers working for the citizens do not feel any pressure to involve themselves in the politics of the elected officials, and do not base their professional/management decisions on the political prospects of those elected officials. It also means elected officials like myself make decisions about those we appoint based on their professional skills and successes (or failures), and not on how many yardsigns they planted or parades they marched in. Overall, that is a good thing for the orderly and professional operation of the County. I don't know what the ethical rules are regarding unclassified employees (and there are many such employees) under other "appointing authorities" in the County, but few if any will have such a rigorous rule. (I think they should for many unclassified management positions and other employees, but ultimately that's not up to me.)

2. The rules regarding "classified positions":

Both under state law and county rules, "classified positions" do have considerably more restrictions. While classified employees can express opinions, make voluntary financial contributions to candidates or organizations, attend political rallies that are open to the public, display political materials in their home or property, wear badges/buttons, they can NOT do a number of things, including (to name a few):
- serve in an elected or appointed office in a partisan political organization;
- "campaign[] by writing for publications, by distributing political material or by making speeches on behalf of a candidate for partisan elective office";
- solicit contributions for any party or candidate;
- or participate in partisan activities at the political polls.

3. There is also clear state law on what people in public office can NOT do as it relates to classified employees (and in some cases, any public employees):
- no person holding or seeking public office can promise, either indirectly or directly, to use their authority or influence to secure a classified position, or to affect a promotion or increase in salary in a classified position, as reward for political influence or service (O.R.C. 124.61)
- no officer or employee of the state or county shall appoint, promote, suspend, lay off, discharge or impact the rank or compensation of any employee in the classified service, or promise or threaten to do so, for giving, withholding, or refusing to support any party (O.R.C. 124.60)
- no person, for the benefit of a political party, campaign committee, etc. can coerce a contribution in consideration of, among other things, "preferring, or maintaining the status of [] any public employee with respect to compensation, duties, placement, location, promotion, or other material aspects of employment." (O.R.C. 2921.43 (C)(2) (Note: this applies to ALL employees).

BOTTOM LINE: In response to the casual suggestions by some commenters on my previous blog entry that personnel decisions should be made in part on partisan political activity, because (as one commenter said) "we would rather hire a known individual, who was willing to give of their time, money and effort", that's a precarious and dangerous road. Depending on 1) the employee's current status, 2) the position they are seeking, 3) the way in which the connection between their political activity and personnel decision is made or communicated, or 4) the activity in which they participate in (ie. distributing campaign literature as a classified employee), such an approach could very well violate both County policy and state law.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Unpaid Court Fines: Collections versus Arrests Saves $$

Given our tough budget and our jailspace crunch, any idea that can generate revenues while reducing demand on our jailspace is something we ought to look into.

Which is why I put forward a motion today that supports taking a model that has worked in Dayton and applying it here.

The concept is simple. Issuing arrest warrants for people with unpaid court fines (for low-level crimes), and incurring all the high costs of using the criminal justice system to collect on that fine (law enforcement pursuit, arrest, processing, potential jail time, court hearing, etc.), is an incredibly expensive way to collect those fines--especially if it happens thousands of times per year, which it does here. It also is not a good use of precious jailspace. Worse, at the end of the day, after all the laborious and costly process of bringing them through the criminal justice system, we often don't collect the unpaid fine anyway.

In Dayton, facing the same predicament we have here, the Municipal Court handed the process over to a collections agency. The Court issues a "collection warrant," rather than an "arrest warrant," for unpaid fines, and the collections agency does the rest. They have found that this saves untold dollars from the enforcement end, relieves pressure on jailspace, and keeps criminal justice resources dedicated to more serious issues. Even better, due to the expertise of the collection agency, the approach generates more revenue on the collection end--which doesn't just help the County budget, but ensures the defendant actually pays whatever they owe for their crimes.

Bottom line -- if the goal is to actually collect the fine, utilizing a "collections warrant" approach is generally a far better way to go.

The good news is that the Clerk of Courts is already looking into potential collections vendors (through an RFP process) for this concept. I'll keep you posted as they move forward.
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