LIMA — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was in Lima Wednesday to voice her opposition to a proposed amendment to the state constitution that will be decided by voters in the Nov. 6 general election.
Issue 1 is the lone statewide ballot issue awaiting voters at the ballot box this year. If approved, the measure would reduce by 25 percent the prison sentences of persons already incarcerated for all crimes except murder, rape and child molestation.
People guilty of felony 4 and 5 offenses would leave prison automatically if Issue 1 passes.
The proposed change to the Ohio constitution also 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. Funds saved by the reduction in prison populations, under the ballot language for the proposal, would be earmarked for additional state-administered drug rehabilitation programs and crime victim funds.
O’Connor said millions of dollars have already been allocated in recent years to provide additional treatment options for drug addicts or habitual drug users. She said Issue 1 does little to provide funding for more or better programs.
“Treatment is preferable to incarceration. I think every judge in Ohio would agree with that. But a dozen other states who have turned low-level felonies into misdemeanors — which is what Issue 1 would do — have done it by statute, not by constitutional amendment. I think this is something the legislature should address.”
O’Connor said Issue 1 would remove the “stick” from the so-called carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with drug offenders, to the detriment of those who most urgently need treatment.
“Under Issue 1 there is little incentive to participate in court-ordered treatment programs, because you won’t get a felony anyway,” O’Conner said. “There is no ability (for judges) to incarcerate people who simply walk away” from court-ordered programming.
The chief justice called the ballot initiative little more than a “drastic, radical measure to introduce criminal justice reforms” that have already been discussed by legislators at the state level.
“Supporters of Issue 1 say it’s going to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, but that’s not going to materialize. It hasn’t in the other states,” she said.
The chief justice termed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that low-level felons already in prison would see a 25 percent reduction in their sentences.
The County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Ohio State Bar Association are among the groups who have publicly voiced their opposition to Issue 1.
The Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray support the issue.