Ohio voters rejected state Issue 1 last fall. They did so even though many casting “no” ballots supported the thrust of the measure — to see that drug addicts receive treatment rather than spend time in prison. The concept resonated more deeply in a state hit hard by the opioid epidemic. What many found troubling about the issue was its structure, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, thus difficult to repair or update, any change requiring the approval of voters.
The hope was that the debate, and public support, would spur state lawmakers to act. Fortunately, that appears the case. On Wednesday, state Sens. John Eklund, a Chardon Republican, and Sean O’Brien, a Cortland Democrat, unveiled a set of proposals designed to revamp sentencing laws involving drug offenders. More, the Republican majority sees Senate Bill 3 as priority legislation, perhaps with approval coming before the summer break.
One part of the approach calls for getting tougher with drug traffickers, offenses divided into three categories, aggravated drug trafficking, major drug trafficking and drug trafficking. A key change would open the door to trafficking charges for possessing a large amount of illegal drugs. That is a lesser threshold than the current requirement in which authorities must establish signs of preparing drugs for sale or distribution.
To complement the crackdown on trafficking, the legislation would reduce the possession of small amounts of drugs to misdemeanor offenses. The state no longer would prosecute for possessing “trace” amounts. Such changes are the welcome breakthrough in the spirit of Issue 1. The premium would be placed on getting offenders into treatment programs where they could rebuild their lives. If an offender succeeds in treatment, the judge could dismiss the charge.
The state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction calculates that today the state prison system holds 1,500 to 2,000 inmates convicted on low-level felony possession charges. That is a small share of the nearly 50,000 people in prison today, a population that has increased from 10,000 or so four decades ago. Yet here is a path to easing the prison numbers. One projection puts the savings from Senate Bill 3 at more than $50 million per year.
Most important are the lives that would be rescued, potentially, if the treatment receives adequate support. Studies long have revealed the burden of a felony conviction on those returning to communities. Those released often run into barriers even as they do their best to seek productive lives. Misdemeanor convictions do not pose anything close to the same obstacle. Thus, offenders have a way to success, and the rest of us benefit from their contribution.
John Eklund said something telling in presenting the legislation. He reminded that many seeking drug treatment fail, perhaps multiple times, before they achieve prolonged recovery. Such an understanding must be part of any process going forward. It also follows that the changes regarding low-level felonies becoming misdemeanors apply retroactively. By approving the bill, lawmakers admit the current process is flawed, or simply wrongheaded. Where is the fairness in continuing to hold prisoners, especially with the racial disparity, African-Americans much more likely to be serving time for minor drug possession?
Issue 1 wasn’t just about drug treatment instead of prison. For example, it also called for expanding and upgrading the concept of prisoners earning reductions in their sentences through completing education programs. That is appropriate for a state looking to reduce its prison population and improve the prospects for those returning to communities. Issue 1 pointed in the right direction. Now lawmakers have the job of getting the details right.