Ohio Issue 1 boils down to a question about crime and punishment, and what exactly is the purpose of our jails and prisons.
It’s no secret the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and with that comes strains on state and local budgets. Ohio’s prisons were built to house 38,579 inmates, but currently are closer to 50,000. Many of the crimes that have led to that overcrowding involve drug addiction.
Thus, the backers of Issue 1 raise the question: Are we locking up people with the hope of rehabilitating them, or are we just warehousing people who have been found guilty of crimes?
The group has formerly titled Issue 1 “The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment.” What they are proposing is out-of-the-box thinking, if not down right radical. Issue 1 would eliminate possible jail time in the future for the possession of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD and other controlled substances by making those offenses misdemeanors. The money saved from having fewer people in prison would then go toward establishing more drug treatment programs to help those with addictions.
Hog wash is how Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor views their plan. She has been traveling the state warning people about the perils she sees.
“A superficial reading of Issue 1 could lead voters to see it as a thoughtful, compassionate and reasonable response. However, if you peel back Issue 1’s layers, its catastrophic consequences for our state become obvious,” she says.
Specifically, Issue 1 would:
• Cut prison time for offenders who complete rehabilitation programs, except those convicted of murder, rape or child molestation;
• Reduce the number of people in state prison for low-level, nonviolent drug possession or drug use offenses or for non-criminal probation violations;
• Convert felony 4 and felony 5 drug possession and drug use crimes to misdemeanors with no jail time for first and second offenses committed within a 24-month period;
• Prohibit judges from sending people to prison if they violate probation with something other than a new crime, such as missing an appointment.
Among those supporting Issue 1 are Richard Cordray, the Democrat candidate for governor; the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union; and the ACLU of Ohio.
It is being bankrolled by billionaires, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center.
Twelve states have already passed some type of decriminalization, but what Issue 1 has planned for Ohio would see it end up with some of the most lenient drug crime laws in the nation, O’Connor said.
Case in point is fentanyl — which is 50 times more potent than heroin and was involved with 58 percent of the overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016. Issue 1 would make the possession of powdered fentanyl in amounts less than 20 grams a misdemeanor – even though 19 grams is enough to kill 2,000 people.
O’Connor also predicted devastating consequence for drug courts. The courts have been highly effective in rehabilitating drug users, she says, but only when they combine the “carrot” of treatment with the “stick” of accountability, including incarceration when needed. With Issue 1, judges also would be forbidden to impose jail time.
That has the Ohio State Bar Association, the County Commissioners Association and Republican candidate Mike DeWine opposing Issue 1.
The Buckeye Institute, an independent think tank, calls the push by Issue 1 for rehabilitation over incarceration laudable. However, it says amending the Ohio constitution is the wrong avenue for seeking that reform.
“Implementing sentence reforms is a tricky business, full of trial and error, and should be Exhibit A for the kind of legal reforms suited to the more flexible and forgiving legislative process rather than the stone-like severity of constitutional amendments,” said Daniel J. Dew of the institute’s legal center.
Both the supporters and foes of Issue 1 agree on one thing: It’s time to get out of the habit of using prisons as the place to shut our problems away and throw away the key.
Voters need to take an honest and comprehensive look when deciding how to mark their ballot on Nov. 6. Their decision will be critical not just because of its impact on criminal justice, but more so because of the impact on human lives.