CLEVELAND (AP) — A November ballot issue aimed at reforming Ohio’s drug laws, reducing the state’s prison population and making millions of new dollars available for drug treatment should be part of the state constitution because the Republican-dominated Legislature has failed to address longstanding problems, supporters of the initiative say.
Opponents argue Issue 1 could have unintended consequences, would tie judges’ hands and would be difficult to fix if embedded into the constitution. But Stephen JohnsonGrove, who helped write the initiative as deputy director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, says it will save Ohio $100 million a year.
“People are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” JohnsonGrove said. “We represent the voice of Ohioans: crime victims and people suffering from addiction and families and communities that have been harmed by the overuse of incarceration. They are demanding changes the status quo won’t make.”
JohnsonGrove said Issue 1 could help offset the $1.8 billion Ohio spends a year on a prison system operating at 130 percent capacity. The initiative would require 70 percent of savings be earmarked by the Legislature for evidence-based drug treatment, which he said is badly needed in a state decimated by an opioid crisis in 2017 killed on average more than a dozen people a day.
Over the past eight years, Gov. John Kasich and state lawmakers made reducing the prison population a priority but have seen limited success. The overall prison population was 49,345 last month, compared with 50,670 in January 2011, when Kasich took office.
Efforts to reduce the number of first-time, nonviolent offenders being sent to prison have collided with pushback from some prosecutors and judges. That has dovetailed with the impact of the opioid crisis, which has swamped the criminal justice system.
Ohio’s judicial organizations have lined up to oppose Issue 1, including the Ohio Judicial Conference, Ohio State Bar Association and Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
Common Pleas Judge David Matia, one of two judges presiding over drug court dockets in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, said making low-level felony drug cases misdemeanors will take away judges’ threat of prison to convince people to get drug treatment. Matia is also critical of the amendment’s provision that limits judges’ ability to make people more accountable when they have violated probation.
“There’s just a lot wrong with it,” Matia said. “It’s not modifiable because it’s in the constitution.”
Matia and other opponents question whether Issue 1 would reduce the prison population given that around 2,700 — just over 5 percent — of inmates are locked up for drug possession, a number that includes those convicted of more serious first-, second- and third-degree felonies. Matia also repeated the criticism that giving prisoners 25 percent sentence reductions for “working in the kitchen” will send violent people back on the streets to victimize more people.
Issue 1 proposes to do the following:
• Make fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession charges misdemeanors.
• Prohibit jail time for misdemeanor possession cases until a person’s third offense within 24 months.
• Allow people previously convicted of felony drug possession to petition courts to have their charges reduced to misdemeanors.
• Require sentence reductions of as much as 25 percent for prisoners who work or participate in rehabilitation programs. Those convicted of murder, rape and child molestation would not be eligible for reductions.
• Require judges to take other steps before sending probation violators to prison.
• Put savings from the reduction of prison populations into state-administered drug treatment and crime victim programs.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, wrote in an op-ed piece the proposed reforms would have “catastrophic consequences” for the state if possession of the powerful opioid fentanyl, blamed for the bulk of fatal overdoses in recent years, is reduced to a misdemeanor. Under the proposed amendment, possession of less than 20 grams — nearly three-quarters of an ounce — of fentanyl would no longer be a felony that could lead to a prison sentence.
“The requirement of probation ties the hands of judges when it comes to sentencing,” O’Connor wrote.
A spokesman for the Issue 1 campaign said people arrested with anything more than a small amount of fentanyl are almost always charged with felony trafficking.
Ohio attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine made the same argument in debates against his Democratic opponent, Richard Cordray, and in campaign advertising. Cordray supports Issue 1.
The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus supports the amendment. While black people make up just over 12 percent of Ohio’s population, they represent 45 percent of the state’s prison population.
Rep. Stephanie Howse, a Cleveland Democrat and president of the Black Caucus, said the “over incarceration” of black and poor people in Ohio has torn families and communities apart. She said a constitutional amendment is the only viable way to enact criminal justice reform given her Republican colleagues’ failure to pursue solutions.
“There are legislative paths to do it,” Howse said. “And those in majority have decided not to act on it. Issue 1 gives us a chance to address it.”