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Cincinnati Enquirer

Push to reinstate work-release program

Defense lawyers' group to send letter requesting new look


A Hamilton County work-release program that ceased in the early 1990s for cost reasons might be getting another look.

The Greater Cincinnati Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is requesting the defunct work-release program be reinstated as part of a still-forming plan to build a new jail and add rehabilitation programming in Hamilton County.

"We're facing a bed crunch at the jail and the community wants to see the sheriff look into alternative means of incarceration," said Herb Haas, a lawyer for 26 years and president of the 80-member Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. The association is drafting a letter to county commissioners and the sheriff on the issue.

The work-release program operated in the 1980s and early 1990s at the former County Correctional Institute in Camp Washington. Known as the Workhouse, the building was demolished in 1992. The site is now home to the River City Correctional Facility.

Under the program, inmates arrested on non-violent, low-level crimes would live in a dormitory-type jail but would be released to go to their jobs during their normal shift. It was a way to help inmates keep their jobs during their incarceration, which helped reduce recidivism. It also allowed them to pay off fines, restitution and child support arrearage.

About 150 inmates were enrolled in the program at its peak. It was shut down in the early 1990s as electronic monitoring via ankle bracelets gained popularity as a more cost-effective way to monitor those inmates, said Joe Schmitz, director of corrections for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. The pending demolition of the Workhouse building also contributed to the program's demise, he said.

The renewed interest comes as county leaders are evaluating ways to ease chronic jail overcrowding. Two of the three county commissioners, Todd Portune and David Pepper, both Democrats, are crafting a plan under which a proposed sales tax increase would fund the building of a $200 million to $225 million jail and new rehabilitation programs. Details are being worked, out but Portune and Pepper said they are open to the idea of work release.

The Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said the program has a proven track record.

Sheriff Simon Leis said he has "no problem with (work release) at all," but isn't sure if the county's judges would go along with it.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge John Burlew likes the idea. He said it could free up beds for more serious offenders.

Warren County runs a work-release program that handles around 175 inmates a year. In Kentucky, Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties run work-release programs.

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