COLUMBUS — Sen. John Eklund says it’s time that Ohio law recognizes that addicts going into drug rehabilitation probably are going to fail, perhaps multiple times.
“If what we’re interested in is recovery and helping people, then we need to acknowledge that [failure] and not punish it like it’s some kind of crime against humanity,” the Chardon Republican said.
Eklund, joined by Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Cortland, rolled out a package of new drug sentencing proposals aimed at focusing prison time on true drug traffickers, not the drug users who need help with their addictions.
Senate Bill 3, a priority measure for Senate Republicans this year, creates harsher penalties for drug trafficking, classifying it as either aggravated trafficking, major trafficking, or trafficking, depending on the amount of drugs.
Eklund said that unlike current law, which requires some indication the person had sold, distributed or prepared the drugs for sale, under the bill a person can be charged with trafficking simply for possessing high amounts of drugs.
“Below a certain amount of drug, the chance a person is a dealer is very very small,” Eklund said. “As we are going through this, we are trying to draw the distinction.”
The bill also reduces the penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs to misdemeanors, and the state would no longer prosecute for "trace" amount of drugs. “No one wants to be prosecuting people for trace amounts anymore,” Eklund said.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections data indicate 1,500 and 2,000 inmates usually are incarcerated at any moment for low-level felony drug possession convictions. Based on average inmate costs, the bill could save the state more than $50 million per year.
“My hope is that we help people who are addicted to drugs get off of them before they die,” Eklund said. He also wants to make full use of the “big hearts and big heads” of Ohio judges, “to give the court system another tool to turn to.”
O’Brien said the key is giving people help, without putting them in prison. “We have seen that people fail many times before they succeed in these programs. Giving the judge the ability to give a carrot as well as a stick will hopefully get them off of the drugs.”
The proposal incorporates ideas discussed by the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee and a collaboration by Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein.
The bill would not change current punishments for date rape drugs or fentanyl.
Those pushing for drug sentencing reform were pleased to see the bill, including Shakyra Diaz, Ohio state director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice.
“What’s clear is the recognition that we need to do more. We know that with regard to our addiction crisis, the criminal justice system hasn’t been an effective response,” she said.
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio, said he is thankful that lawmakers, following the November defeat of state Issue 1, continued to pursue drug sentencing changes. He said it would have been easy to drop the issue after the proposed constitutional amendment was soundly rejected in November, following concerns about its wording and placement in the state constitution.
The ACLU, Daniels said, will pursue changes to the bill, including better data collection, because “we need to know more about what works and what doesn’t.” He also wants to see the bill apply retroactively, impacting those currently in prison for offenses that, under the bill, would not result in incarceration.
Daniel J. Dew, legal fellow with the Buckeye Institute's Legal Center, said in a statement, "By reclassifying low-level drug possession crimes as misdemeanors, judges will retain the tools necessary to get people into treatment without sending them to prison, which is critical to good outcomes for those suffering from addiction, their families, and their communities."
Both Eklund and O’Brien said the possibility of applying the bill retroactively has been discussed, but both agreed that the issue is complicated.