Sean O’Brien bill gets support

Legislation would reclassify minor drug possession as misdemeanors

WARREN — A nonpartisan Ohio think tank is coming out in support of an Ohio Senate bill that would reclassify minor drug possession from fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to misdemeanors, but is asking for some tweaks.

Senate Bill 3 was introduced in February 2019 and “would help people with minor drug possession convictions by removing 268 legal barriers — known as collateral sanctions — to jobs and professional licensing,” according to an analysis by Ohio Policy Matters.

Ohio Sens. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, and John Eklund, R-Munson Township, introduced the legislation, which is now in the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

“SB 3 would reduce Ohio’s prison population, which has soared to over 50,000 people, while directing more people with substance use disorder to treatment,” the analysis states. “SB 3 would offer new possibilities for people convicted of minor drug possession to get their lives back on track. Collateral sanctions limit opportunities for Ohioans with convictions even years after they’ve paid their debt. Many of those restrictions are triggered by felonies, but not misdemeanors.”

O’Brien said the bill, with its bipartisan support, is one of the top five bills the president of the Ohio Senate wants to see move through the legislative process.

“I think there is hope in moving this bill along. It has been making its way slowly through the committee, we’ve looked at some amendments and it is under review. We believe it will soon be out of the committee and then move on to the Senate floor for a vote, hopefully in a month or two,” O’Brien said.

“Collateral sanctions” are punitive actions that follow someone after he or she has served prison time, according to Ohio Policy Matters.

“Many are related to employment but they can touch all aspects of life. For example, someone with a felony conviction for minor marijuana possession could be barred from working at a daycare or as a home health care aid and even from serving as a volunteer firefighter or on a jury. They could not live in the same house as someone trying to adopt or take in a foster child,” the think tank’s analysis states.

Policy Matters Researcher Michael Shields said lawmakers should consider amending the bill so it applies retroactively to open up opportunities for people affected by the “tough-on-crime” laws from the 1980s and 1990s.

“By removing the felony stigma, Senate Bill 3 opens up hundreds of possibilities for people with minor drug possession convictions,” Shields said. “Policymakers could improve the lives of thousands of Ohioans by passing this bill.”

But, making the law apply retroactively “would be too difficult,” O’Brien said.

The complications of resentencing that many cases “doesn’t make sense at this time,” O’Brien said, but we want to see this moving forward so people with these lower level drug felonies can turn their lives around and get jobs.”

O’Brien said that is why he and state Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, also are working on a bill that would make it easier to obtain an expungement for certain felony convictions.

Ohio Policy Matters has five goals for criminal justice reform in the state:

• Reclassification of minor drug possessions from felonies to misdemeanors;

• Retroactive application of that reclassification to ensure communities over-targeted by past drug prosecution are included in the benefits of reform;

• Reform of the probation-to-prison pipeline, reserving reincarceration only for those who commit new crimes;

• Reduction of sentences for incarcerated Ohioans who earn credit by participating in education, behavioral programming or work activities while in prison;

• Re-employment for those who’ve served their time, by eliminating or reducing barriers to work known as collateral sanctions.