On Nov. 6, Ohioans will be voting on Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that would change sentencing for drug crimes and reduce prison sentences for all felons. Supporters claim Issue I will reduce the prison population, thereby saving money, and it will provide drug treatment for addicts. On the surface, it sounds sensible, but is it? Turns out, there’s a lot more detail to Issue 1 than initially meets the eye, and as they say, the devil is in the details.
There are a lot of issues with Issue 1, starting with the fact that it deals with a lot more than just drug crimes. Surprised? Let me explain. A yes vote for Issue 1 is a vote to reduce sentences by 25 percent for inmates convicted of felonies if the inmate participates in programming. The inmate is not required to complete the programming or meet any standard of rehabilitation, and it appears that simply having a job while in the institution qualifies. What does this mean? It means that those in prison for felonious assault, kidnapping, abduction, terrorism, aggravated robbery and human trafficking (to name a few), will be released into our neighborhoods 25 percent sooner.
Now let’s tackle the drug claims. As prosecutor, one of my responsibilities is to ask the court to dismiss charges when a defendant successfully completes the intervention in lieu of conviction process, which includes court orders requiring the defendant to participate in, and successfully complete, treatment. I am thrilled when I can do that. Issue 1 takes away this process completely, and it strips the court’s ability to enforce consequences should offenders not comply. When an offender is, in essence, given freedom to ignore court orders because there are no consequences, there is no motivation to participate in treatment.
In my experience, most addicts with whom I come into contact with do not want treatment – they just want the next fix. They do not voluntarily go to treatment. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it does increase their chances of committing other crimes such as theft and robbery to support their habit, and even more devastating, it increases their chances of overdosing – and perhaps even dying. I can tell you family members call me and beg me to keep their loved ones in jail because they are afraid their son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter might overdose if released.
Moving on to the money. Saving money sounds like a good idea. Putting it toward treatment sounds like a good idea, but let’s take a look at the money. First, where is the money coming from? The vast majority of funding (millions of dollars) to support Issue 1 comes from California billionaires and some folks in Washington D.C. All money raised to oppose Issue 1 in Ohio has come from Ohioans, people who know best what is right for the state.
Second, let’s get back to the saving money claim. The California model of this Issue, passed in 2014, has had difficulty determining what money was actually saved – but all guesstimates are significantly less than what was projected. Further, and I warn you the video is graphic, if you want to see the reality of what is happening in California, Google BART addicts (Bay Area Rapid Transit). The video is an example of another type of cost, the cost we will pay as a community for removing the incentive (jail/prison) to get treatment.
Here’s another, perhaps unintended, consequence to consider. The passage of Issue 1 would make Ohio a state with some of the most lenient drug laws in the nation, likely attracting drug traffickers, resulting in more addicts. Wait, why would the passage of Issue 1 attract drug traffickers to Ohio?
Answer: Issue 1 makes possession of large amounts of deadly drugs into the equivalent of traffic offenses. Possession of 49 unit doses of cocaine, 49 unit doses of heroin, and 19 grams of fentanyl become misdemeanor offenses with no possibility of jail or prison unless the person in possession commits two more drug offenses within a 24-month period. Nineteen grams of fentanyl is enough to kill 10,000 people.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said it best, “Who wouldn’t want to set up their drug distribution business in Ohio knowing that possessing 19 grams of fentanyl or lethal amounts of other drugs would result only in a first-class misdemeanor with mandatory probation?”
As your prosecutor, I’m telling you Issue 1 is scary, and it’s absolutely wrong for Ohio. It may sound well-intended, but amending our state constitution is not the way to help addicts or address drug laws. Consider this — in 2013, 4 percent of drug overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Three years later, nearly 60 percent of overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Having drug laws set in the constitution, as Issue 1 would do, would make them nearly impossible to change. Ohio would be unable to quickly respond to the ever-changing landscape of drug crimes across the state.
There is no debate that we, as a community, should always strive to do more and help those in need, but Issue 1 is not the way. It undermines the courts. It takes away incentives for addicts to complete treatment. It puts our communities at unnecessary risk.
Despite whatever promises Issue 1’s proponents make, I can say with certainty that prosecutors, judges, and our law enforcement will be left utterly helpless to do what you elected us to do to — keep our community safe.
I join virtually all state judicial and law enforcement groups who oppose Issue 1 as well as statewide organizations for auditors, county commissioners, recorders, prosecutors, and other elected officials.
I echo Delaware County Sheriff Russ Martin when I say this is not a partisan issue; this is a public safety issue.
I know Issue 1 is complicated, and I am willing to visit with any group or organization to answer questions or concerns about Issue 1. I urge you to do the research, ask the tough questions, and go beyond the quick 30-second commercials, and find for yourself that Issue 1 is wrong for Ohio. Vote no on Issue 1.
Carol O’Brien is Delaware County Prosecutor.