County officials wary of passing Issue 1

WARREN — A ballot measure that would reduce drug possession charges to misdemeanors would cut the prison and probation population in the state — which is high compared to other states, proponents say, But opponents say the proposal will have unintended consequences and chips away at judicial power.

Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution, will appear on the November ballot as the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative.

The measure was introduced in Ohio as the “Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment” by the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign.

The proposal has support from groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Ohio Transformation Fund, the Alliance for Safety and Justice, Open Society Policy Center and Ohio Policy Matters.

The proposal is opposed by groups like the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, the Association of Municipal and County Court Judges of Ohio, the Ohio State Bar Association, the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Buckeye State Sheriffs Association.

In cases where a man or woman is caught with a drug like heroin while committing a felony like aggravated burglary, the felony charges could still be pursued against the individual, but the drug charge would be a misdemeanor, said Amy Hanauer, executive director of Ohio Policy Matters.

Hanauer said she supports the measure because so much of Ohio’s tax dollars — $1.3 billion a year — don’t work to improve Ohio communities, but instead to lock up 50,000 people per year.

“We see so many community needs not being addressed, and in part it is because we are shredding $1.3 billion a year of our resources to incarcerate people. We need to incarcerate some people, but do not need to incarcerate people who are no threat to anyone if they get treatment,” Hanauer said.

Ohio imprisons a lot of people, Hanauer said.

According to a report she co-penned, only 13 states incarcerate a higher share of residents, only two states have a higher share of residents on probation and Ohio prisons are at 132 percent of capacity.

If Issue 1 passes, 10,000 fewer people would be in Ohio prisons and $136 million would be diverted from prison spending, according to the report.

Many local officials aren’t sold on the idea that the proposed changes would lead to the results proponents are hoping for.

April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said she sees too many holes in the amendment.

The amendment’s language does not ensure treatment or detail how cost savings would be identified and then funneled into treatment programs, Caraway said. And there are existing avenues to ensure people aren’t being sentenced to time behind bars for first time and minor offenses.

“While I believe that addiction treatment is better than incarceration for some people, those who commit crimes should be held accountable for their offenses. We have four drug courts in Trumbull County and people do have an opportunity already to get treatment in lieu of incarceration,” Caraway said.

Hanauer said if the existing diversion programs were working, prisons and jails wouldn’t be over capacity.

“Drug courts are great, and work well in many cases, but if they were working every time, in every case, we wouldn’t have so many in jail,” Hanauer said.

In principle, the amendment, if passed, is likely to reduce the caseload at county commmon pleas courts, which handle the low-level felony cases, and increase the caseloads in municipal courts, which handle most misdemeanor cases.

Warren Municipal Judge Thomas P. Gysegem said he is wary of limiting a judge’s sentencing power and complicating the law when most first-or-second-time felony 5 drug offenders do not end up with prison or jail sentences.

“It’s not surprising to me that some judges want to keep making these decisions themselves, but other judges disagree. They want to spend more time on crimes that have victims and let the treatment community concentrate on those crimes that don’t have any other victims but themselves. There are more effective ways of providing treatment,” Hanauer said.

Trumbull County Sheriff Paul Monroe said he would expect the changes to lead to more short-term sentences carried out in county jails — which are already over capacity.

“The same offenses that were being committed will continue to be committed, but the difference is it will only be punishable in county facilities. And the amendment doesn’t divert funding to pay for that. Columbus would just expect the county to eat the costs. The state might save a tremendous amount of money, meanwhile our jails are already bursting at the seams, not just in Trumbull County, but across the state,” Monroe said.

Gysegem said he hasn’t made up his mind yet on which way he is voting, but said that too is a concern of his.

With the elimination of judicial discretion in the past, county jails “swelled to become housing facilities for drug offenders,” Gysegem said.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said he doesn’t want to see judges lose their discretion either, and is also concerned about funding. Plus, when such dangerous drugs are floating round, steeper sentences may be appropriate, he said.

“It would be complete nonsense to make possession of heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil, along with other dangerous drugs, a misdemeanor. If anything, the penalties for possession of these types of drugs, aka poison, which kill, should be increased,” Watkins said.

Judge Maureen O’Connor, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, came out against the proposal in a statement warning of possible unintended consequences.

“If Issue 1 passes, Ohio may have some of the most lenient drug crime laws in the nation. We could easily become a magnet for substance abuse activity because there will be, in effect, very little consequence to engaging in such behavior,” she wrote.

Caraway said Ohio legislators working through the House and Senate may be a better route to make changes to drug policies in Ohio.

Hanauer said if legislators were interested in reforming the laws, it would have been addressed by now in a meaningful way.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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