COLUMBUS — Should Ohio’s constitution be amended to eliminate prison time for low-level, non-violent drug offenders in exchange for more and better drug treatment programs and facilities?
Ohio voters will decide that question when they go to the polls Nov. 6.
Issue 1 — the only statewide ballot issue on this year’s ballot — is a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate felony penalties for low-level drug offenders in Ohio and in turn would provide increased funding for drug treatment programs. If approved, the measure would reduce by 25 percent the prison sentences of persons already incarcerated on most low-level drug charges and would further restructure sentencing mandates for those same crimes going forward. The amendment would prohibit jail or prison time for persons convicted of possession of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, and other controlled substances — instead making those offenses misdemeanor charges.
Funds saved by the reduction in prison populations, under the provisions of the proposed amendment, would be applied to state-administered rehabilitation programs and crime victim funds, according to the ballot language.
Voices of opposition
Opponents of the measure say a constitutional amendment is the wrong vehicle for combating a growing drug addiction crisis in Ohio, arguing that the language included in the proposed amendment would weaken judges’ ability to force those persons most in need of addiction treatment to participate in treatment programs.
Supporters maintain the state’s resources could be put to better use than by simply incarcerating more and more offenders convicted of non-violent drug-related crimes. Annual state savings of up to $100 million annually are predicted if Issue 1 is approved.
Opponents say Issue 1 would remove the ability of county judges to force persons convicted of drug-related crimes to take part in court-ordered treatment programs.
Allen County Common Pleas Court Judge Dave Cheney did not hesitate when asked his thoughts on Issue 1 recently.
“Its passage would be a disaster,” Cheney said. “It eliminates the ‘pressures’ on (drug offenders) to get treatment, and that’s the big thing we as judges impress on defendants is the consequences of not completing their court-ordered treatment.”
Cheney said he cannot comprehend what is in the minds of supporters of the constitutional amendment.
“People on the other side apparently have no understanding of what goes on in these courtrooms,” said Cheney. “Where is the incentive for (defendants) to participate in rehabilitation programs if there are no consequences?”
Auglaize County Common Pleas Court Judge Frederick Pepple was even more to the point in his opposition to Issue 1. He said passage of the measure would “make my job easier … and people will die.”
Earlier this month Auglaize County Prosecuting Attorney Ed Pierce and law enforcement officers in that county staged a press conference to voice unified opposition to Issue 1. A similar event was held in Van Wert, where public officials spoke out against Issue 1. Earlier this week, judges, elected officials, law enforcement personnel and prosecutors from Allen County held a similar press conference to urge residents to vote against the proposed amendment.
Allen County commissioners have signed a resolution in opposition to the measure, and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio has gone on record against Issue 1. The state Bar Association has urged its membership to oppose Issue 1. The Ohio Farm Bureau’s board of trustees recently announced the farm organization’s opposition to Issue 1.
Supporters outline views
While there appears to be little or no organized effort in Allen and surrounding counties in support of Issue 1, there are a handful of groups at the statewide level who voice support for the measure.
According to the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign that helped put Issue 1 on the ballot, 49,345 people are incarcerated in Ohio’s prisons at an average cost per inmate of $26,400 each year.
Policy Matters Ohio, a non-profit, left-leaning think tank, estimated the prison population would be reduced by more than 10,000 people if Issue 1 passed.
“Ohio Issue 1 would reduce incarceration, improve public safety, and free up over $100 million each year for Ohio to redirect toward treatment and victim services,” according to a statement from the organization.
The group’s analysis concludes that “more than 10,000 Ohioans could be taken out of expensive incarceration and served in the community, where they can better participate in work and family life. Doing so would redirect more than $136 million in the first year of implementation. Ohio citizens should take advantage of the opportunity to save costs, reduce addiction and improve public safety by supporting this ballot initiative.”
The Ohio Rights Group — a medical marijuana patient group — has voiced support for Issue 1, which it calls the “Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment.”
Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, said in a press release that Issue 1 will be a boon to drug courts. He said courts “are eligible to apply for grants from the approximately $85 million in savings by reducing the state’s bloated prison budget. Drug court judges will also have the ability to put people in jail if they are rejecting treatment options,” he said
But Allen County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Reed disputes that claim. “There’s nothing in the language (for Issue 1) that allows judges to force people into treatment,” Reed said.
JohnsonGrove also said a yes on Issue 1 “captures millions of dollars and prioritizes people and treatment over prison cells.” But Reed cited an analysis of the Issue 1 written by the non-partisan Ohio Office of of Budget and Management that said claims of massive cost-savings by the Ohio prison system are “substantially over-stated.”
“The OBM concludes that there are no significant cost savings and that costs could actually increase and will trickle down to Ohio counties and municipalities,” Reed said.
The Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray have publicly voiced support for Issue 1.
Reach J Swygart at 567-242-0464.