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State Issue 1 targets drug laws

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Not everyone may realize it, but there is “not a person in our state who isn’t impacted” by the concerns addressed in Ohio Issue 1, villager Lindie Keaton said this week.

Keaton favors the statewide initiative seeking a constitutional amendment that  through a variety of mandated measures would lesson penalties for some drug-related crimes in favor of treatment.

The communitywide repercussions of the opioid epidemic are more far-reaching than the individual lives of drug addicts and their families, Keaton said. While taxpayers carry the costs as addicts who commit nonviolent crimes are imprisoned rather than treated, the state’s economy is hurt by the loss of potential workforce labor, she said.

But Issue 1, which goes before voters Nov. 6, has opponents, too. Some, including retired Ohio Supreme Court justice Paul Pfeiffer, object to changing the state constitution, arguing that the issue should be handled legislatively by the General Assembly. Others, including former state Attorney General Ken Blackwell, believe that the measure doesn’t provide effective treatment incentives while possibly emboldening drug dealers. 

What Issue 1 says

If adopted, the amendment would:

• Reduce the charges for illegal drug use or possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

• Eliminate jail time for nonviolent drug offenders until the third arrest within 24 months.

• Reduce sentences for offenders who participate in rehabilitative, work or educational programming, except in cases involving murder, rape or child molestation, 

• Allow some inmates already convicted of nonviolent drug charges to seek, retroactively, a reduction in charges to a misdemeanor.

• Apply any cost savings from fewer incarcerations to state-administered rehabilitation programs and crime victim funds.

• Eliminate automatic prison time for such minor probation violations as missing a meeting.

And if approved, the language added to the Ohio Constitution would read:

“The People of the State of Ohio find and declare that drug addiction is a serious societal problem that presents issues of public health and safety and incarcerating users, rather than by providing treatment, poses a threat to public safety and is an inefficient use of criminal justice resources, and further find and declare that prison spending should be focused on violent and serious offenses and preparing individuals for release through rehabilitation while maximizing alternatives for non-serious non-violent crime.”

From nonpartisan to partisan

While the initiative began as a nonpartisan response to the consequences of the opioid epidemic — particularly the human and economic costs of overburdened courts and overcrowded prisons — support and opposition is falling along party lines.  

The gubernatorial candidates have all weighed in on the issue, with Republican Mike DeWine coming out against it, and Democrat Richard Cordray and Libertarian Travis Irvine in favor.

In a recent television campaign ad, Yellow Springs native DeWine, currently Ohio’s attorney general, expressed his deep reservations, blaming Cordray for the initiative.

“Cordray’s plan would allow drug dealers to remain on our streets, even when they are caught with enough fentanyl to kill 10,000 people. The same drug that is killing Ohioans every day.” DeWine charges. “Cordray’s plan would create a safe haven for drug dealers.”

Politifact has written about the ad and concluded that the statement is false: The plan is not Cordray’s, and while the amendment would reduce drug possession charges to a misdemeanor, drug trafficking would remain a felony. 

DeWine, who has defended the ad, believes the proposed amendment would make prosecuting drug dealers more challenging.

“It’s very difficult to charge someone with trafficking,” he said in a recent press conference posted online.

Cordray does support the plan, however, quoted by media as stating in the gubernatorial debate last month at the University of Dayton that:

“We need to be tough on crime, but we also need to be smart in how we use our limited resources to combat the opioid epidemic that is raging our state. Law enforcement leaders around Ohio tell me that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem, and I agree. We should be getting addicts the treatment they need, not giving them jail sentences at a huge cost to taxpayers.”

And although Cordray cites having spoken with “law enforcement leaders around Ohio,” a number of state law groups have expressed their opposition to Issue 1. According to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan online data-gathering website, opponents include: the Association of Municipal and County Court Judges of Ohio, Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ohio Association of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center, the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Ohio State Bar Association.

According to an argument against Issue 1 filed with the Ohio Ballot Board by Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and Paul Pfeifer, executive director with Ohio Judicial Conference, Issue I “is dangerous,” “undermines treatment,” “reduces sentences for violent offenders,” and “is an unfunded mandate” that “shifts costs to local government.”

Supporters include the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Justice & Police Center, the Ohio Transformation Fund and Open Society Policy Center.

Individual supporters include popular musician John Legend, a native of Springfield, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who through the Chan Zuckerberg Advocacy group has donated $1 million to the effort.

According to the Dayton Daily News, citing state finance reports filed in July, $4.5 million of the $4.8 million contributed in support of Issue 1 up to that point came from out-of-state sources.

A supporting argument filed with the Ohio Ballot Board by the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign says the measure will save taxpayer dollars, puts “public safety dollars to better use,” “reduces recidivism” and “protects public safety.”

The Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign is the political action committee heading the support campaign. According to Ballotpedia, no opposition PAC is registered.

Numbers and costs

There is no disagreement that Ohio’s prisons are overcrowded, as they are currently operating at 132 percent capacity, according to state corrections data.

According to Department of Justice estimates, Ohio’s incarceration rates are slightly higher than the national average of 750 per 100,000 residents.

And according to multiple sources, the state currently spends more than $1.8 billion on prisons. The current daily cost, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch in August, is more than $72 per inmate.

Meanwhile, as the rate of violent crimes has declined over the past decade, the number of inmates housed in Ohio’s prisons has remained at a similar level over the same time period.

Citing FBI records, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently reported that in 2008, Ohioans experienced 348.2 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, with a prison population of 50,404.

Last year, the violent-crime rate had dropped to 297.5 per 100,000 residents, with incarceration numbers at 50,301.

Of those in prison, people of color make up a significantly higher percentage behind bars than in the general population.

While the U.S. Census reported 12.9 percent of Ohio residents as African American, more than 45 percent of inmates entering Ohio prisons last year were African American, the Cleveland paper reported, citing state data.

Getting personal

Villager Lindie Keaton, who teaches kindergarten at the Antioch School, said she came to the issue through her involvement with the regional affiliate of Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ. The national group’s focus is “to call white folks into the work for racial justice,” Keaton said.

Issues of incarceration often have a racial justice component, as a preponderant percentage of convictions involve people of color, as last year’s 45 percentage figure indicates.

The nonpartisan Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which developed the state initiative, brought it to the local SURJ group, seeking members’ help during the petition phase to get the measure on the ballot and then with educating voters. (A letter by Keaton on the issue is on Page 4.)

Keaton said that while she responds to the arguments in favor of the amendment, she also has a family connection to the issue that make it feel more personal.

Tanya Maus, the director of the Peace Resource Center at Wilmington College, which hosted a symposium this week on social justice aspects of the opioid crisis, said her work has shown her that the epidemic touches many people, more than she previously realized.

As she prepared for the symposium she was surprised by the number of students and colleagues who shared their own stories of family members who are addicted or imprisoned.

“More and more people started to talk about their experiences,” Maus said.

Such conversations are important for the community to find solutions and transcend the shame and stigma of addiction, she added. 

The options for treatment are so limited or expensive, Maus noted, that many families see imprisonment as the only way to save a loved one from addiction.

“If prison is the safest place, what does that say about our society?” she said.

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