COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Fewer Ohio prisoners than ever are going back to prison after they've been released, the state announced Wednesday, attributing the drop to community programs that work with newly released prisoners, and new prison units that prepare people for life outside bars.
The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says the current inmate return rate of 27.1 percent, down from 28.7 percent a year ago, is far below the national rate of 40 to 44 percent.
The rate affects not just the prison system's bottom line but the bigger goal of reducing crime in Ohio, prisons director Gary Mohr said.
"If our people being released from prison are committing less offenses, then we have less crime victims," Mohr told The Associated Press. "I think that's the most important piece."
Saving money on prison operations also means more state dollars can be spent earlier in people's lives on things like education, he added.
Going forward, the expansion of Medicaid is expected to help connect incarcerated people to needed resources as they come home. The state projects that roughly 366,000 residents will be newly eligible for coverage by the end of June 2015 by increasing the state-federal health care program for poor children and families.
Mohr says a lower return rate will also help the state reduce its prisoner population, currently about 50,500.
A 2011 sentencing law meant to lower the number hasn't had the desired impact, leading to fears that the state may need to spend millions to build a new prison after 2017, while pushing judges to rethink sentences and placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
The current prison population hasn't changed much since 2011, despite projections that it would drop to 47,000 by 2015 and continue to decline.
Ohio's prisoner population could grow to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, Mohr warned last year. The state is currently at 134 percent of capacity and could hit 139 percent by 2019. California's system was declared unconstitutional at 140 percent, meaning federal courts could intervene and order expensive changes.
It's not that the 2011 law is failing. Challenges, including a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors, are holding back promises that the law would lower the prisoner population.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has said the courts are also part of the problem and called on judges to be more diligent about reducing the number of offenders behind bars.
The rate announced Wednesday is based on a three-year study of inmates released in 2010.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus