Issue 1: The arguments for and against

By Eddie Mowen Jr. -

OHIO — Ohio Issue 1 boils down to a question about crime and punishment, and what exactly is the purpose of our jails and prisons.

It’s no secret the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and with that, comes strains on state and local budgets. Ohio’s prisons were built to house 38,579 inmates, but currently are closer to 50,000. Many of the crimes which have led to that overcrowding involve drug addiction.

Thus, the backers of Issue 1 raise the question: Are we locking up people with the hope of rehabilitating them, or are we just warehousing people who have been found guilty of crimes?

The group has formally titled Issue 1, “The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment.” What they are proposing is out-of-the-box thinking, if not down right radical. Issue 1 would eliminate possible jail time in the future for the possession of drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD and other controlled substances by making those offenses misdemeanors. The money saved from having fewer people in prison would then go toward establishing more drug treatment programs to help those with addictions.

Hog wash is how Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor views their plan. She has been traveling the state warning people about the perils she sees.

“A superficial reading of Issue 1 could lead voters to see it as a thoughtful, compassionate and reasonable response. However, if you peel back Issue 1’s layers, its catastrophic consequences for our state become obvious,” she says.

Specifically, Issue 1 would:

• Cut prison time for offenders who complete rehabilitation programs, except those convicted of murder, rape or child molestation;

• Reduce the number of people in state prison for low-level, nonviolent drug possession or drug use offenses or for non-criminal probation violations;

• Convert felony 4 and felony 5 drug possession and drug use crimes to misdemeanors with no jail time for first and second offenses committed within a 24-month period;

• Prohibit judges from sending people to prison if they violate probation with something other than a new crime, such as missing an appointment.

Among those supporting Issue 1 are Richard Cordray, the Democrat candidate for governor; the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union; and the ACLU of Ohio.

It is being bankrolled by billionaires, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center.

Twelve states have already passed some type of decriminalization, but what Issue 1 has planned for Ohio would see it end up with some of the most lenient drug crime laws in the nation, O’Connor said.

Case in point is fentanyl — which is 50 times more potent than heroin and was involved with 58 percent of the overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016. Issue 1 would make the possession of powdered fentanyl in amounts less than 20 grams a misdemeanor – even though 19 grams is enough to kill 2,000 people.

O’Connor also predicted devastating consequence for drug courts. The courts have been highly effective in rehabilitating drug users, she says, but only when they combine the “carrot” of treatment with the “stick” of accountability, including incarceration when needed. With Issue 1, judges also would be forbidden to impose jail time.

That has the Ohio State Bar Association, the County Commissioners Association and Republican candidate Mike DeWine opposing Issue 1.

The Buckeye Institute, an independent think tank, calls the push by Issue 1 for rehabilitation over incarceration laudable. However, it says amending the Ohio constitution is the wrong avenue for seeking that reform.

“Implementing sentence reforms is a tricky business, full of trial and error, and should be Exhibit A for the kind of legal reforms suited to the more flexible and forgiving legislative process rather than the stone-like severity of constitutional amendments,” said Daniel J. Dew of the institute’s legal center.

Both the supporters and foes of Issue 1 agree on one thing: It’s time to get out of the habit of using prisons as the place to shut our problems away and throw away the key.

Voters need to take an honest and comprehensive look when deciding how to mark their ballot on Nov. 6. Their decision will be critical not just because of its impact on criminal justice, but more so because of the impact on human lives.

Preble County Prosecutor Martin Votel agrees and says if passed, will have dire consequences for communities across the state.

“Bankrolled by California billionaires, Issue 1 would amend Ohio’s constitution, put public safety at risk, place victims of crime at risk, undermine drug treatment efforts, and leave Ohio more vulnerable than it already is to the opiate crisis plaguing our communities and state. Issue 1 backers claim their proposal is about improving public safety. But it is telling that the men and women involved in every aspect of keeping our communities safe—prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials, and treatment providers—have come together to raise the alarm about Issue 1,” he said in a recent release.

He continued: “Issue 1 makes possession of deadly drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, nothing more than a misdemeanor offense, and further, prohibits any jail sentence whatsoever for the first two offenses. A person possessing enough fentanyl to kill a whole town would receive the same slap on the wrist as someone guilty of disorderly conduct. For people already in prison, Issue 1 permits the early release of thousands of violent and non-violent offenders, including human traffickers and child abusers. This robs victims of justice and puts potentially-dangerous offenders back on our streets.

“By letting as many as 10,000 offenders out of prison early, Issue 1 proponents claim Ohio will save millions of dollars that can instead go to treatment. While funding drug treatment programs is a laudable goal, it should not be done by freeing violent felons from prison at the expense of public safety. Further, such claimed savings (if any) would be recognized up-front and would certainly diminish in subsequent years. Proponents have conceded as much. The costs of treatment, then, would be foist upon cash-strapped local governments, leaving recovering addicts in the lurch when such programs are shut down or curtailed from lack of state funding. Issue 1 effectively creates another unfunded mandated whereby the cost of the state criminal justice system is transferred to localities without a reliable source of funding.

“Currently, the most effective avenue of treatment is provided by local courts. Courts offer treatment as an alternative to prison. These programs are effective only when the “carrot” of recovery is incentivized with the ‘stick’ of a potential jail/prison sentence.”

Votel went on to say, despite the promises of Issue 1 proponents, former drug addicts, prosecutors, and judges — the people in the trenches — agree Issue 1 will thwart the effectiveness of treatment through local courts.

“Despite whatever promises and rosy predictions Issue 1’s proponents make, I can say with certainty that prosecutors like me, local judges, and our law enforcement community will be left utterly helpless to do what you elected us to do to — keep our community safe,” Votel said. “The extraordinary breadth of folks opposing Issue 1 should show how flawed this constitutional amendment is. This November, I urge you to join prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, treatment providers, and former addicts in saying ‘no’ to Issue 1 and the dangers that it presents.”

Preble County Sheriff Mike Simpson joins other county officials in campaigning against Issue 1.

“Issue 1 is bad for law enforcement,” he said. “Right now we need all the help we can get to trap the traffickers. Now is not the time for a high-risk, unproven approach that will remove the threat of jail for possession of even large amounts of drugs. One of the problems we face is that the cartels are always working to stay one step ahead of us. We have to be nimble and flexible to count the continuing changes in the drug scene.”

For instance, Simpson added, in just eight years law enforcement has seen a prescription drug abuse problem tun into a heroin and cocaine problem, to what is now a major problem with deadly fentanyl.

“Yet, Issue 1 would lock our drug laws into the Ohio Constitution where changing them is a lengthy process of a year or more,” Simpson said. “This is exactly the wrong thing to be doing in the present situation.”

By Eddie Mowen Jr.

Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4056 or on Twitter @emowen_RH

Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4056 or on Twitter @emowen_RH