Do prisons really help rehabilitate criminals or are they just warehouses for society’s “undesirables”?
That’s the question asked by the proponents of Issue 1, which you’ll have a chance to vote on this November.
The statewide ballot initiative, officially called “The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment,” asks for a radical change in the way Ohioans look at justice.
Ohio prisons are overcrowded, built to house about 38,500 inmates just today home to about 50,000. Many are there because of drug possession and substance abuse convictions.
If supported by voters, Issue 1 would reduce lower-level felony drug possession charges to misdemeanors and focus on drug treatment instead of jail time for criminals dealing with addiction.
It would also curb prison time for nonviolent inmates who complete rehabilitation programs. Those convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation would not be eligible for sentence reductions, though.
And Issue 1 would stop judges from imprisoning offenders who violate probation in certain ways, such as missing an appointment. It would not shield those who commit additional crimes, however.
The idea has proved divisive — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray has voiced support while Republican candidate Mike DeWine has vehemently argued it would make Ohio a safe haven for drug dealers.
Cordray finds himself aligned with the American Civil Liberties Union.
“For decades the Ohio General Assembly has refused to acknowledge our over-crowded prisons, has repeatedly increased and enhanced sentences for drug use and possession, and has perpetuated the failed ‘War on Drugs’ in a disastrous way. Ohio voters now have the opportunity to reform our broken criminal justice system by supporting Issue 1,” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio. “At its core, the initiative will improve community health, reduce our prison populations, and reinvest in communities.”
“Locking people in a cell does not address addiction or the underlying factors that cause people to use. We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic and our prisons are at 132 percent capacity. We need to do something. We’ve needed to do something. Issue 1 is the solution,” he said.
The ACLU argues the policy would free up $136 million per year to go to community needs, public safety, and addiction treatment across Ohio.
DeWine doesn’t agree: “Issue 1 will make the existing drug epidemic far worse and erase the progress we have made in defeating this devastating crisis,” he said. “Issue 1 is dangerous, reckless, will hurt addicts, and take away some of the most effective tools had by judges and law enforcement personnel in helping people and saving lives.”
The Ohio State Bar Association, which isn’t known for being incredibly conservative, agrees.
“We firmly believe that treatment and rehabilitation are the right strategies for curbing Ohio’s opiate crisis and have seen them working in drug courts around the state,” said OSBA president Robin Weaver. “However, when you categorically strip our judges of their discretion and take away an important tool — the threat of prison time — you significantly lower the chances that they will get sober, enroll in, and complete a drug treatment program.”
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has also been outspoken against Issue 1.
“Issue 1 would make the possession of powdered fentanyl in amounts less than 20 grams a misdemeanor with only probation as the consequence. This means that a drug offender caught with less than 20 grams walks away with no possibility of jail time,” she said. “Since the lethal dose of fentanyl is just 2 milligrams (one-thousandth of a gram), 19 grams of fentanyl is enough to kill approximately 10,000 people.”
“The lack of consequences for fentanyl possession is shared with possession of other lethal drugs — cocaine, K2, meth and heroin among them. Across the range of illegal substances, many current felonies would become misdemeanors. Who wouldn’t want to set up their drug distribution business in Ohio knowing that possessing 19 grams of fentanyl or lethal amounts of other drugs would result only in a first class misdemeanor with mandatory probation?”
Closer to home, The LCADA Way stands against Issue 1.
“The amendment as written would make it more difficult to prosecute drug traffickers and takes away from the court available resources for rehabilitating offenders,” said president and CEO Thomas Stuber. “We believe judges should have the ability to use incarceration when necessary, removing criminals from our streets to directly reduce their ability to spread drugs throughout our communities.”
“The LCADA Way agrees that nonviolent individuals with a substance use disorder are best served through rehabilitation and treatment, instead of just incarceration. This is particularly true for marginalized populations who are over-represented in Ohio’s prisons and often go untreated,” said Stuber. “Legislation of this type must be properly funded and belongs in the Ohio Revised Code. We oppose this constitutional amendment because it does not address the problems as intended.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.