Issue 1, which Ohioans will face on the ballot in November, would set Ohio on a firm path of criminal justice reform, which is a sound idea. It would use the Ohio Constitution to do it, which is not.
The so-called Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment would reduce lower-level drug possession from felony to misdemeanor status and prohibit incarceration until the third such offense within two years. It would lock in a matter of criminal procedure constitutionally.
Opponents also say the amendment would shift costs from the state to local communities without a guaranteed source of funding and violate plea agreements signed off on by crime victims. They say it would undermine the state’s drug courts by taking away the the threat of jail time that makes drug treatment more attractive to drug offenders — the stick that goes with the carrot.
To be sure, Ohio has too many people in jail and prison because of their addiction to drugs.
But a one-size-fits-all model imported by well-meaning philanthropists may not mesh properly with Ohio law and procedure. Nor is the Ohio Constitution, already littered with many things that do not belong there, the place where reforms like this should be implemented.
Ohio laws regarding drug abuse, drug trafficking, and drug possession should be made by our elected officials with the advice of Ohio judges, prosecutors, police, treatment specialists, and other practitioners in the field.
If the amendment were to pass, it would have to be administered by a legal establishment that is significantly in opposition, including state Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the Ohio Association of Common Pleas Judges, some lawmakers, and prosecutors.
And now, the Republican nominee for governor, Attorney General Mike DeWine, has announced his vehement opposition.
According to Mr. DeWine, “a drug dealer carrying enough fentanyl to kill 10,000 people would avoid jail time and be sent back onto the streets with just a misdemeanor charge — free to peddle their poison again. This issue is dangerous and reckless and will put all Ohioans at risk while making it tougher for law enforcement and courts to get drug dealers off our streets.”
The Democratic nominee for governor, Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general, supports the measure. He says 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. We should be getting addicts the treatment they need, not giving them jail sentences at a huge cost to taxpayers.”
They both have a point. Let the legislature and local governments work it out on a case-by-case basis.
Ohio has a successful model to reduce the jail population and redirect nonviolent offenders into treatment that can safely return an offender to the community instead of jail. It’s right here in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and Toledo Municipal Court where a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge helped local courts reduce prison headcounts by 20 percent in its first year.
We need criminal justice reform, but we need to do it with care, not broad brushstrokes. Amending the beleaguered Ohio constitution is not the right tool.
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