Drug sentencing reform is the right policy for Ohio

Robert Alt May 26, 2020

This opinion piece appeared on The Center Square.

Ohio’s restaurant patios have re-opened. Some so-called non-essential businesses are gradually serving customers again. We may soon even get a haircut, pump some iron at the gym, and hear the familiar sounds of baseball in the park and on the radio.

As Ohio emerges from the Great Cessation of 2020, there is some good news coming from the Ohio Statehouse that will help make it easier – or at least not harder – for Ohioans to keep and find employment now and down the road.

The Ohio Senate will soon vote on a criminal justice reform bill that will rewrite Ohio’s drug-sentencing laws and reclassify low-level drug possession crimes as misdemeanors, rather than the felonies they are now. This new measure will go a long way toward reducing Ohio’s prison population and helping to ensure that those suffering from addiction receive necessary treatment, return home to their families, and can find and keep work without a low-level “felony possession” preemptively disqualifying them at their next job interview.

Some may worry that drug sentencing reform and misdemeanor reclassification will lead Ohio into dangerous, uncharted legal territory where criminals run rampant and prosecutors fear to tread. Far from being the first state to venture here, Ohio stands to join a growing list of almost 20 states that currently treat low-level drug possession as a misdemeanor; and many of these same states report crime rates dropping, not rising.

Oklahoma, for example, reclassified low-level possession and property crimes as misdemeanors in 2017, and has not experienced any increase in overall crime rates since. A broader 2018 Pew Charitable Trusts study found no correlation between prison sentences and drug use, overdose deaths, or drug arrests. The data simply do not support claims that states must threaten prison time or felony conviction in order to maintain public safety and address drug addiction.

Ohio’s drug courts already have the tools they need to impose effective accountability and deterrence. A misdemeanor still carries the threat of incarceration that some judges claim they need to encourage treatment participation. But misdemeanors do not also carry the heavy baggage of a felony conviction that hurts housing, education and employment prospects for years.

The pending sentencing reform proposes new weight thresholds for drug offenses that will make Ohio law nimbler and more nuanced in dealing with the realities of low-level drug possession. The current law’s cookie-cutter approach to sentencing too often ties judges’ hands with mandatory prison sentences that can prevent them from reaching a just result under the circumstances. As the Ohio Judicial Conference itself has said, in order for judges “to fulfill their constitutional duty to secure just results for the people of Ohio, judges need the flexibility to fashion appropriate sentences given the particular facts and circumstances of individual crimes.”

Even during these difficult and divided times, that sentiment is something on which we can all agree.

As proposed, the revised thresholds would extend that judicial flexibility and look beyond the current mandatory prison sentences that affect low-level offenders and those suffering from treatable addiction. These new provisions would expand treatment-in-lieu-of-conviction options and close legal loopholes that can revoke probation for non-criminal technical probation violations and too often cost working mothers and fathers the jobs and income that support their children.

Recovering from COVID-19 and its economic aftermath will be hard enough for Ohio’s workers without outmoded drug sentencing policies that needlessly jeopardize housing, education and gainful employment. Ohio’s long-overdue drug sentencing reforms now pending in the Statehouse should make it easier, not harder, for non-violent drug offenders to continue putting food on their own tables. This commonsense reform offers more good news to go along with warm weather, patio seating, and another season of baseball in Ohio – and likewise deserves hearty and across-the-political-spectrum support.

Robert Alt is the president and CEO of The Buckeye Institute.