Canton Repository: Unintended consequences hinder SB 3

The Canton Repository

Unintended consequences.

That’s a risk anytime lawmakers take a stab at solving complicated societal issues.

Health care, public education, unemployment insurance and Medicaid are among recent examples of complex topics Ohio lawmakers have attempted to address. And a sloppy fix, no matter its good intentions, often introduces as many problems as it solves.

Add reducing the state’s prison population to that list.

For the past couple of years in Ohio, lawmakers — and, last year, the public — have tried to use drug sentencing reforms as a direct route to solve another pesky issue: reducing the state’s prison population.

It’s an understandable approach to tackling the issue. Early this year, a sister newspaper reported that Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data indicated between 1,500 and 2,000 inmates are incarcerated at any moment for convictions on low-level felony drug possession. Move those inmates from incarceration to treatment, the thinking goes, and not only would the state be dealing with Ohioans’ drug abuse problem in a more effective and compassionate manner, but it also would save taxpayers millions of dollars directed at overcrowded prisons.

Enter Senate Bill 3.

Introduced early this year as a legislative alternative to the failed attempt to address the issue though a constitutional amendment — State Issue 1, which voters rejected in 2018 — SB 3 seeks to create a clearer distinction between drug offenders — users caught in a cycle of addition who are harming themselves and who could respond favorably to treatment programs — and drug traffickers looking to harm others.

Proponents of Senate Bill 3 say the way it sets tiers for trafficking offenses, based on the amount of drugs a person possesses at the time of arrest (thus determining what would be considered a felony), would classify more offenses as misdemeanors. As a result, they say, more offenders would be directed into court-ordered treatment rather than sent to state prison.

Problem solved, right?

Not so fast, say many in law enforcement and in the judicial system.

As written, SB 3 “opens up the gates to drug trafficking,” said Stark County Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath.

After witnessing a presentation that included Heath, the county’s four other common pleas judges, Sheriff George Maier, his top inspector and plenty of visual aids, we’re also concerned this iteration of legislation designed to reduce prison population could succeed in that area at a steep price: creating a new set of serious community issues.

Unintended consequences, such as allowing traffickers to carry enough heroin or meth — more than 20 doses — to face only a misdemeanor charge instead of the current felony threat, in some cases as high as a third-degree felony leading to significant jail time.

We cannot support a law with such a glaring weakness.

To his credit, sponsor John Eklund, a Republican from Geauga County, is listening to critics.

Last month, Eklund told a Gannett reporter he has received nearly 30 amendments since introducing SB 3 in February. He said he plans to circulate the list this week, gauge reaction from colleagues in the Senate, then call for a vote to move the bill out of committee before Christmas.

A present for Ohioans would be an improved bill that serves both the needs of those who can benefit from drug treatment while protecting the community from harmful unintended consequences.

The Canton Repository

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