The Summit County prosecutor, numerous local judges and two prominent faith leaders came together at an Akron church Tuesday to express concerns over state Issue 1.
They said the proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution on the Nov. 6 ballot isn’t the answer to problems that plague the state’s criminal justice system — and may create more.
“There are enough concerns here to give us pause,” said the Rev. Joey Johnson of House of the Lord, who hosted the lunchtime news conference at his West Akron church. “Say ‘yes’ — do something about the sentencing structure. We should not swallow everything in this bill the way it is.”
Issue 1 would reclassify drug offenses — including obtaining, possessing or using drugs — from felonies to misdemeanors for drug users and require the state to spend savings from the reduction of people in prison on drug treatment programs.
A poll by Baldwin Wallace University’s Research Institute released Tuesday shows likely voters are in favor of the issue by a margin of 48-31.
The debate over the issue has become partisan, with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican candidate for governor, opposing it and Richard Cordray, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, favoring it.
Many African-American local and state leaders and Akron NAACP President Judi Hill are supporting Issue 1.
Hill said the state legislature passed drug-use laws that disproportionately impacted people of color.
“I think it’s a good start in the right direction,” she said of Issue 1.
However, the speakers at the news conference, who hailed from both political parties and different races, said they don’t think this ballot issue is the best way to right any wrongs. A blown-up placard at the event called the ballot issue “dangerous.”
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said the issue would:
• Make drug possession a misdemeanor, even when it involves heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.
• Decrease prison time by up to 25 percent for all crimes by giving inmates credit for participation in prison programs.
• Eliminate prison time for probation violations unless a new crime is committed.
Walsh said judges could no longer order jail time for defendants who violate probation for offenses like missing a meeting with their probation officer, failing a drug treatment program or cutting off a GPS monitoring device.
“Probation without consequences is not protecting our community,” Walsh said. “This is about safety.”
Johnson, who admitted to getting pressure to support Issue 1, said he thinks people should try not to be so polarized that they don’t fully research the issue. He said the conspiracy theorist in him makes him question why people in other states — like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife — are putting millions of dollars into an Ohio ballot issue.
“I don’t believe it’s for us,” Johnson said.
The Rev. Mark Ford of Love Akron said he initially favored Issue 1 but changed his mind after talking to two people he trusts who understand the law. He advised others to do the same and — if they are people of faith — to pray for the right choice.
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Joy Oldfield is one of two judges who preside over Turning Point, the county’s felony drug court program that provides people charged with low-level felonies who have a drug or alcohol addiction with treatment and other help instead of sending them to prison. She said a recent study found that 89 percent of the graduates from February 2014 to March 2015 hadn’t been arrested, 96 percent were conviction-free, and none had been incarcerated after one year.
“We have seen thousands of lives saved,” she said. “With resources and help and hope, we are making a difference.”
Oldfield said she looked at her current Turning Point docket and found that 71 percent of the current participants wouldn’t be eligible for the program if Issue 1 passed. She said Issue 1 pledges to provide treatment, but she is concerned people might not take advantage of it without the potential penalties in felony drug courts.
If Issue 1 passes, municipal courts will handle many of the low-level drug cases that were previously fielded in common pleas courts.
Barberton Law Director Lisa Miller did an analysis that showed her office’s caseload for Barberton Municipal Court, which handles southern Summit County, would increase by nearly 40 percent. She said she would need to hire another prosecutor and Issue 1 wouldn’t provide the funds.
The questions from the audience at the news conference gave a glimpse of the level of interest and division on Issue 1. They included whether sending people to jail is a better solution and if people who go to prison emerge as worse criminals than when they went in.
Audience members also asked how judges decide on penalties. Summit County Common Pleas Judge Amy Corrigall Jones responded by saying the penalties are in the statutes adopted by state lawmakers.
“The state legislature passes the laws that we as judges are required to follow,” she said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.