Recently, County Commissioner Julie Ehemann penned a guest editorial printed in this newspaper in opposition to State Issue 1. I am joining her in urging voters to vote “No” on State Issue 1 in the upcoming November General Election.
Issue 1, also known as The Amendment to Reduce Penalties for Crimes of Obtaining, Possessing, and Using Illegal Drugs, would add a new section to the Ohio Constitution. The amendment is designed to reduce the number of people in state prisons for low-level, nonviolent drug possession; drug use offenses; or, for non-criminal probation violations. In addition, it would provide sentence credits for participation in rehabilitative programs; and is intended to direct the savings achieved by such reductions in incarceration to substance abuse treatment programs, crime victim programs, probation programs, graduated responses programs, and rehabilitation programs.
While that sounds noble, the proposed constitutional amendment would give Ohio some of the most liberal drug laws in the country. Interestingly, the effort to pass the legislation is being bankrolled by California billionaires.
The amendment undermines current effective forms of treatment within the criminal justice system. A judge’s ability to enforce treatment orders is nullified and will result in fewer people going to treatment and staying in treatment.
The reclassification of all drug possession offenses means there is no incentive to go to treatment and no enforcement mechanism for the courts. It would prohibit probation revocation on any crime (drug or otherwise), effectively undercutting a court’s ability to enforce orders. The amendment does not replace the current effective forms of treatment within the criminal justice system with any other mechanism that ensures that people who need treatment get it.
The amendment potentially creates a class of criminal that cannot be penalized under the law by changing probation revocation sanctions. A felon put on probation but completely uncooperative would not be subject to his suspended sentence. The amendment removes the possibility of prison for a probation revocation (for any felony, not just drug related offenses) unless a person commits a new criminal act. Jail is a possibility only if, after stating particularized facts on the record, the judge finds someone a danger to himself or others.
The amendment could increase, without funding, the workload of the court system by moving cases from common pleas courts to municipal courts that, importantly, are not currently equipped with the same types of resources. It would also allow petitions to the sentencing court to retroactively reclassify drug possession charges.
In the case of Sidney and other similar cities, cases currently heard in common pleas court would be transferred to municipal court. Municipal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction — they have statutorily limited powers and certainly do not have the tools the common pleas court would have to deal with such a complex issue as drug addiction.
It is expected that if the issue were to pass, the local municipal court would need to add a magistrate who would solely deal with drug related cases. It is expected that in addition, at least once clerk and three probation officers would need to be hired for the increased monitoring required.
The amendment could increase, without funding, the caseload in family courts as the problem of addicted parents unable to care for their children will only be exacerbated. Without question, the amendment should, if deemed necessary, be handled as legislation passed through the General Assembly. The amendment, as written, is poorly drafted and could have been vetted and perfected through the legislative process. Instead, if passed, Issue 1 will be enshrined in the Constitution and it will not be possible to change even a single word without another constitutional amendment, years from now.
Just one example of an unintended consequence of the amendment that cannot be changed: date rape drugs are treated the same as all other drugs in the ORC. With the passage of Issue 1, possession of date rape drugs would also be a misdemeanor with no prison or jail time.
Issue 1 also ties the hands of local law enforcement to effectively prosecute drug traffickers, hobbling their ability to dole out the criminal penalties necessary to reduce drug use and crime in their communities. By reducing sentences for violent offenders – not just those possessing drugs – Issue 1 poses a very serious threat to public safety by putting violent criminals back on the streets.
The amendment would shift the financial responsibility of prosecuting these misdemeanor offenses to the local governments, making them responsible for the costs of treatment, probation and jail. The amendment will also inhibit the prosecution of drug traffickers, in addition to reducing the sentences of violent offenders such as human traffickers, those convicted of aggravated arson, burglary or robbery, kidnapping and felonious assault – just to name a few.
Ohio’s local governments are already struggling with combating the worsening opioid crisis on the front lines of our communities despite repeated cuts to their funding. Issue 1 is projected to save the state millions annually – however, shifting the cost of courts, probation, treatment and jail time to municipalities would create an incredible financial burden in the form of yet another massive unfunded mandate.
Finally, changing Ohio’s constitution creates a long-term challenge, as an entire statewide initiative and election would be necessary to make any needed changes to the amendment in years to come. Ohio should not legislate via constitutional amendment: such a serious change in sentencing law should be done in the Ohio Revised Code, where the legislature can make necessary adjustments as needed.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Conner issued a statement in opposition to State Issue I on August 28, 2018. In her statement, she cited the catastrophic effect this amendment would have if passed. I urge you to read Justice O’Conner’s review of State Issue I. It is available online at http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/bench/2018/issueOne_083018.asp#.W6jqcLIrLcs.
Several Ohio organizations, including the Ohio Municipal League (a board on which I serve) and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio (a board on which Commissioner Ehemann serves), oppose Issue 1.
For all the reasons outlined, I urge you to vote in opposition to Issue 1 when you cast your ballot in November (I’m writing this now because absentee voting has already begun, and early voting begins Oct. 10.) Hopefully our votes will send a message to our billionaire friends in California that their attempts to covert the electoral process could better be spent feeding the hungry, clothing the naked or sheltering the homeless.
The writer is the mayor of Sidney.