VAN WERT - On Friday, a recently-passed piece of legislation designed to bring down the number of inmates in Ohio prisons will take effect. House Bill 86, also known as Ohio's Prison Reform Bill makes changes to a wide variety of sentences. Perhaps the most visible are changes to lower level felony drug cases.

"HB 86 set up substantial hurdles to sentencing an offender to prison for a non-violent fourth or fifth degree felony. This would include sentencing of F-4 and F-5 drug trafficking offenders," stated Van Wert County Common Pleas Court Judge Charles D. Steele in a statement. "If the court believes it has no available community-control sanction sufficient to fulfill the overriding purposes of sentencing, the court must contact the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) for information on available programs. The ODRC must respond within 45 days. The court must defer sentencing up to an additional 45 days to await the ODRC's response. If no response, the court can proceed to impose a prison term.  If ODRC timely responds by giving information for an available program, and assuming no other provision allows prison, the court must impose community control even if the court believes the program is inadequate."

Steele went on to point out that there are constitutionality questions over this as it relates to the issue of separation of powers when ODRC rather than the court is the determiner of the sentence to be imposed.

If a judge instead decides to impose a jail term locally as part of community control, he faces potential issues with limited space in the Van Wert County Jail. Due to funding issues in the county, the jail can handle only a certain number of prisoners. Another useful option, sentencing an offender to the WORTH Center in Lima, ORDC is pursuing a policy that would allow only what it classifies as "high risk" offenders. Determining the level of risk would not be up to the judge, but instead is to be based on an assessment tool devised by the ODRC.

Also new is the creation of two types of third-degree felonies. The upper-tier felonies of the third degree will now be punishable by a prison term of 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, or 60 months. Lower-tier third-degree felonies are reduced to 9, 15, 21, 27, 33, or 36 months. Currently these crimes are to draw sentences of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years. Sentences of those already in prison for these crimes will be reduced to conform to the new law.

Other changes made by HB 86:

• The maximum sentence is for a first degree felony is increased from 10 to 11 years.

• The threshold for a theft offense is raised from $500 to $1,000 for a felony.

• Crack and powder cocaine are treated the same for the level of offense.

• Multiple sentences are assumed to be served concurrently unless the sentencing court makes certain findings to impose consecutive sentences.

• Offenders sentenced to prison can now earn credit for "good time."

• ODRC can petition the court for early release of a prisoner from prison after certain offenders have served 80% of their prison sentence.

• Intervention in Lieu of Conviction which was previously limited to persons with whom drugs or alcohol was a leading factor to the criminal offense. HB 86 expands Treatment in Lieu of Conviction to include mental illness or intellectual disability.