Ohio is ready for the next step in drug sentencing reform

Daniel J. Dew and Jocelyn Rosnick Sep 09, 2019

This opinion piece appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Late last year, in a rare moment of true bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump signed the most significant federal sentencing and criminal justice reform legislation in U.S. history. Known as The First Step Act, the bill was lauded by a wide range of organizations and people, including both of Ohio’s senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman.

Experience and a growing body of research show that hefty mandatory prison sentences do not have the deterrent effect on drug use that was once presumed. A call for life-saving treatment for people struggling with addiction combined with close supervision within their communities is slowly replacing the “tough on crime” mantra of the 1980s and 1990s.

While Washington is celebrating its First Step, Ohio is ready for the next one: drug sentencing reform at the state level, such as the policies proposed in Senate Bill 3.

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof calls the bill the “Next Step Act,” which is fitting because during the past decade, Ohio policymakers have passed multiple bills to connect people suffering from addiction or mental illness with the treatment services they desperately need. In 2011, House Bill 86 made a presumption against prison for first-time, low-level, non-violent offenders.

Last year’s Senate Bill 66 expanded treatment opportunities for people facing drug charges and amended the purposes of felony sentencing to include rehabilitation. Those and other worthwhile reforms have curbed Ohio’s growing prison population, saving taxpayers an estimated $500 million in new prison construction.

Still, there is more to do. Ohio had the fifth-largest prison population in the country in 2016 — having grown nearly fourfold between 1980 and 2016. The burden has been felt overwhelmingly by communities of color. In 2015, black people represented 35 percent of the total jail population in Ohio, despite comprising 12 percent of Ohio’s overall population. But Ohioans should be hopeful. Along with Obhof, Ohio House leaders and Gov. Mike DeWine have committed to making criminal justice reform a top priority.

Another important reform under consideration as part of Senate Bill 3 is the reclassification of low-level drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. If that measure succeeds, Ohio would join Alaska, California, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Utah in rethinking the felony model for simple drug possession.

Opponents of reclassification argue the change would “normalize” drug use, but the research does not show that to be true. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts study found no correlation between imprisonment and the rates of drug use, overdose deaths or drug arrests. The claim that the threat of lengthy prison time or a felony conviction discourages drug abuse is inconsistent with the data.

Critics of reclassification also argue that no changes are necessary because, due to prior reforms, very few people are going to prison for low-level drug possession. Some reform advocates dispute that claim, but what is indisputable are the lasting consequences of a felony conviction on a person’s life beyond probation or prison. The social stigma that comes with a felony conviction does almost certain — often irreparable — damage to a person’s employment, housing and educational prospects.

It is true that many people with a low-level felony conviction never see the inside of a prison cell, but instead are given probation in the community. Society understands that both the offenders and the community are better served by supervision and treatment rather than incarceration. Yet we brand them for life based on what is, we hope, a brief moment in their lives. Even after the debt is paid, the modern-day scarlet letter remains as a government-imposed barrier to a better life.

Ohio is in the grip of a drug epidemic that demands answers. Well-meaning people may believe that harsher sentencing and more prison cells will help, but the data show otherwise. It is wrong to add to the destruction by ruining lives that could be saved, improved and made productive.

By pushing for ways of producing better outcomes for all Ohioans in the face of opposition, policymakers in the General Assembly and the governor’s office are proving that they take the welfare of all Ohioans seriously. Ohioans have every right to be pleased that lawmakers of both parties back such sensible reforms.

Dew is a legal fellow at the Buckeye Institute’s Legal Center. Rosnick is advocacy director at the ACLU of Ohio.