Issue 1 May Be Dead But Lawmakers Have New Plan to Reform Ohio’s Drug-Sentencing Laws

Voters didn’t just reject Issue 1 in Tuesday’s election, they crushed it, with 63 percent voting against the ballot measure that sought to convert most drug-possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, and remove the option of jail time from a judge’s list of sentencing options.

But, according to a report in the Springfield News-Sun, state lawmakers are already talking about moving forward on criminal sentencing reforms that incorporate some of the same themes that voters rejected.

One major difference, however, would be that the changes won’t be enshrined in the Ohio Constitution. That way, should the law that ends up getting passed need tweaking, lawmakers could easily go back and address the issues.

Another exception could come in the treatment-over-prison-time theory for the powerful opioid fentanyl. Issue 1 would have allowed a person caught with 19 grams fentanyl, enough to kill approximately 10,000 people, to get off with a misdemeanor and no possibility of prison time, which made that proposal highly unpopular across Ohio.

Ohio’s three most powerful political leaders — Senate President Larry Obhof, House Speaker Ryan Smith, and Gov.-elect Mike DeWine — all opposed Issue 1 while the Democrat candidate for governor who supported Issue 1, Richard Cordray, was soundly defeated in Tuesday’s election.

In fact, almost every Republican judge as well as the majority of county prosecutors and the law enforcement community came out against Issue 1. But that doesn’t mean Republicans don’t share some of the same concerns as those who supported Issue 1, namely that Ohio must find a better way to get addicts into treatment, and take some of the pressure off of prisons.

State Sen. Obhof (R-Medina) told the News-Sun that he will introduce a bill in the Senate within a few weeks that calls for a number of reforms. The bill will reportedly be based on a bipartisan plan developed by Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat.

Obhof wants to act on the bill before Gov. John Kasich leaves office in January, according to the Sun-News report. But if that doesn’t happen, he said he plans to bring it back next year.

Ohio’s problems with opioid addiction have been blamed for prison overcrowding, a shortage of mental-health treatment, rising violent-crime and repeat-offender rates.

Nearly 60 percent of all felony sentences in Ohio are for drug and property crimes, according to a report by the Council of State Governments.

Below are some highlights of a criminal-justice reform bill that Obhof is preparing to steer through the Ohio State Senate:

  • Reduce most felony 5 and felony 4 drug possession offenses to misdemeanor violations where there will be a presumption in favor of probation if an offender agrees to treatment.
  • Allow people in prison or on probation for newly reclassified F4 and F5 offenses to petition the court for a reclassification of their offense to a misdemeanor with the appropriate reduction in sentence.
  • Allow people to seal their criminal records related to F4 and F5 drug possession convictions.
  • Create a presumption against jail time for technical probation violations, but give judges discretion to order treatment or incarceration if the violation is the commission of a new offense or when there are repeated violations. Generally, a relapse into addiction will not mean prison time.
  • For the remaining felony drug possession offenses, eliminate all mandatory drug sentences except for major drug offender convictions and possession of fentanyl.

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Anthony Accardi is a writer and reporter for The Ohio Star.







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