Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor took a risk a year ago. She voiced early and determined opposition to state Issue 1. The proposed constitutional amendment called for reducing felony drug charges to misdemeanors, supporting treatment, with the larger goals of rescuing lives and seeing a decline in the state’s prison population. Her stance attracted some criticism for dragging the Ohio Supreme Court into a political fight.
The chief justice responded persuasively, arguing the ballot measure involved the administration of justice, or the responsibility of the high court. She expressed concern about folding the change into the state constitution, any needed adjustment difficult to achieve. She also found shortcomings in the absence of adequate incentives for addicts facing criminal charges to complete treatment programs.
Her voice made a difference, voters rejecting Issue 1 by a wide margin. And now the chief justice is back, fulfilling a pledge that was implied or stated plainly by many opponents: They would get behind legislation to achieve the same objectives, addicts viewed not as criminals but as needing help. The chief justice now backs House Bill 1.
This legislation won overwhelming approval in the House last month. It makes advances on two fronts. First, it promotes treatment, and second, it improves the way to sustained recovery, widening opportunities for those with alcohol-related or drug possession convictions to get their records sealed, making it easier to get a job and secure a place to live.
How would treatment receive higher priority? The legislation would increase participation in what is called intervention in lieu of conviction, defendants with the option of entering treatment under court supervision, criminal charges dropped if they.are successful. This has been a familiar and successful practice in Akron and Summit County. The legislation would set a standard statewide.
In particular, it would do so by mandating a court hearing to take up the option. More, the bill would create a presumption in favor of intervention, or treatment. As a result, courts would be inclined to see treatment as the first and appropriate course. Judges would still have discretion. Yet if they deny intervention to otherwise eligible defendants, they would be required to explain the reasons why in a written entry to the court record.
A conviction of any kind is hard to put behind. No matter how well rehabilitation or recovery is going those with records encounter at practically every turn barriers to building normal and productive lives. Thus, H.B.1 expands the range of people with low-level convictions who can apply to have their records sealed. For instance, there would be no limit on the number of fourth-degree and fifth-degree felonies that could be sealed, as long as they are not violent or sexual offenses. Currently, the cap is five.
More, an offender could seek sealing after one year, as opposed to three years today.
All of this serves the concept of rehabilitation, the state acting responsibly as a partner in helping offenders get their lives on track, though additional state resources still are required. The state as a whole is the beneficiary from the positive contributions that follow, laying the groundwork for a reduce prison population, so many incarcerated for drug-related crimes.
For her part, Chief Justice O’Connor isn’t so keen on Senate Bill 3, legislation crafted with the same goals in mind. It would reduce low-level drug felonies to misdemeanor charges. Actually, it may not be as troublesome as the chief justice thinks. At the moment, the priority goes to House Bill 1, headed for the state Senate. It represents the first step in upholding the consensus that emerged from the Issue 1 campaign last fall.