On Nov. 6, Ohioans will vote on Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment titled “Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative.” It requires a simple majority vote to change the Ohio Constitution.
If Issue 1 passes, illegal drug and drug paraphernalia possession and use would be reduced to misdemeanors from felonies. That includes cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl.
Judges would be prohibited from issuing jail sentences until the third drug possession offense in a two-year period. It could subtract up to 25 percent from an inmate's court-ordered sentence for participating in rehabilitative, work, or educational programs, unless the conviction is for murder, rape or child molestation. It also would allow individuals convicted of possessing, procuring or using illegal drugs before the initiative’s enactment to petition the court to change their conviction to the new class of offense and be resentenced or released, unless the court determined that the individual was a risk to the public. There's more, and you can find details at ballotpedia.org., but this summarizes several key points.
I wish Ohio would lead the nation in innovative, effective treatment to combat alcohol and drug addiction as well as prison and sentencing reform.
Issue 1 is not the way to do it.
Ohio legislators, working with the courts and law enforcement, have implemented programs to address these issues, as they should.
In recent years, we have seen the creation of drug courts, mental health and veterans courts. These programs – and they are no "walk through the park" to get into, stay in or graduate from – are showing positive results. Lorain and Cuyahoga counties have all three.
One of Issue 1's stated goals is to reduce Ohio's prison population. It's a laudable goal and Ohio is already working on it. Ohio prisons are at 132 percent of capacity, according to Policy Matters Ohio, with nearly 50,000 inmates. They cost us a whopping $1.26 billion – with a “B” – a year to house, feed and provide medical care. A high rate of recidivism suggests that, when inmates are released, their prison experience may have made them better criminals instead of contributing members of society.
Prison cannot continue to be a revolving door. That is also why the state turned to community-based corrections programs for low-level, nonviolent offenders. These programs attempt to keep offenders closer to home, family and community resources. Time can be served in local jails. Local mental health, drug treatment and job-training providers attempt to redirect offenders to productive lives.
SB 66 becomes law at the end of this month. The bipartisan measure places a focus on potential for rehabilitation and strengthens and expands these efforts.
As we all know, the wheels of government can turn very slowly, and I imagine that was some of the motivation for those who hit the streets to secure more than 300,000 valid Ohio voter signatures to get Issue 1 on the ballot. I believe they went about this the wrong way, as a constitutional amendment is not the way to get issues like these resolved. However well intentioned, I believe the ballot language would create confusion in interpretation and possibly allow criminals to remain free or others already in jail to be released with no assurance they won't offend again.
Years ago I met Joe (not his real name), imprisoned for drug possession. We met when I spoke at the Grafton prison. He was one of the inmates allowed to escort me through the grounds. I recall asking myself how men who seemed as nice, friendly and polite as Joe became mired in drugs, then prison. But he, like scores more, did. Period.
Two or three years later, I walked into a small community-based nonprofit on Cleveland's West Side to meet with the executive director. As I entered, a man approached and said, "Do you remember me?" It was Joe.
Before I left the building, I made a point of searching him out to talk. I was curious about what had happened since we met. He told me he was married and a father. He was rehabilitated in prison – not a small feat – and had remained drug-free. He told me he was determined to do the right thing by his family. He said it was not easy finding a job, but the nonprofit he worked for gave him a second chance.
He was attending classes and working with teens to keep them off drugs and on the path to a decent life. He did what so many other former prisoners could not do: He earned a paycheck, paid taxes and successfully re-entered society.
He earned his way back. It was not just handed to him. This is what SB 66, along with the established programs like drug courts, can lead to. We don’t need Issue 1.