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New law lessens felony sentences to cut jail costs

— A bill that will bring lesser penalties to fourth- and fifth-degree felons will go into effect this week with the intention of saving money on state prison costs. Despite these intentions, Athens County officials believe the change will only cause harm at the local level. House Bill 86 will take effect Friday, Sept. 30 and change felony sentencing laws to one year of community control for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies, fifth being the lowest degree. Prior to the change fourth-degree felonies could earn up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine, and fifth-degree warranting up to 12 months and a $2,500 fine. The law could save the state $60 million in jail costs, said Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, adding the law could cause more harm than benefit. “The fallacy to the argument is that it will save money,” said Blackburn. “Now local government will have to provide more money. It’s like we are giving felonies away.” Though the law assumes money would be saved on the state level with the release of prisoners from state correctional facilities, Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail Warden Jeremy Tolson said this would simply put financial strain on both Athens County and local prisons. “A lot of people reoffend, as we tend to see a lot of people over again,” Tolson said. “There will be some of these guys back on the street.” Fourth- and fifth-degree felonies typically consist of theft, domestic crimes, possession and trafficking of illegal drugs, according to the Ohio Revised Code. Starting Friday, people committing these felonies will be sentenced to community control for a year, instead of state-run jails, said Tolson. Also, offenders currently in jail for these crimes will begin to be released back into society, taking power away from local judges, said Blackburn. “The new administration in Columbus is turning the state upside down,” said Athens County Sheriff Pat Kelly, adding he was displeased with the fact local sheriffs and police chiefs were not consulted before the change. Though Tolson said the offenders who do not have to serve prison terms will be funneled into community control programs, that will still not control the number of prisoners being added to the local jails, he said. In terms of the lenient change, Kelly said Athens County law enforcement will continue to do the job they’ve always done. “Criminals are criminals to begin with, and this won’t change that,” Kelly said. “Some may feel this is a free pass to commit a crime, but this will be dealt with as harshly as before. We will continue doing the job at the local level, and we will provide peace for our citizens,” said Kelly. “I encourage all citizens to contact our state senators,” he added.

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