COLUMBUS — When supporters of a ballot issue that would reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders needed a judicial voice to counter judges’ opposition, they found it in retired drug court Judge Scott VanDerKarr.
The former Franklin County Municipal Court judge last month praised the proposed constitutional amendment for redirecting money now paying for inmates in state prison to drug treatment programs instead, and said drug courts would still have “more than enough of a stick to provide treatment with accountability” under Issue 1.
But on Tuesday, Judge VanDerKarr stood with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and others to strongly oppose Issue 1, which would turn current non-violent fourth and fifth-degree drug felonies into misdemeanors.
That would mean no time in state prison and would make it less likely offenders would serve time in county jails.
Judge VanDerKarr said he changed his mind after studying the full text of the would-be amendment’s four pages. Now he’s says it’ll be a “trainwreck” for Ohio’s judiciary.
“I, too, believe there are too many F-4s and F-5s ... sitting in our prisons in the state of Ohio,” he said. “I agree with that premise.”
But he questions using the constitution to accomplish this, making it tougher for changes to be made later.
“We were changing lives when I left the bench at a 70 percent success rate,” Judge VanDerKarr said. “That’s what you have when you have the stick and the carrot. This bill does take (the stick of potential prison time) away.”
Under Issue 1, felonies previously prosecuted in common pleas courts with sentences served in state prisons would instead be handled as misdemeanors in local municipal courts.
“Who’s going to defend those people?” he asked. “Who’s going to prosecute those people? Who’s going to be the judge? Who’s going to be the court reporter? All that costs you, taxpayers, money, and the bill contemplates zero dollars for operation. ... How is municipal court supposed to function that way?”
The proposed amendment would require lawmakers to take any savings realized from fewer people going into state prisons and distribute it based on a formula. Issue 1 spokesman Dennis Willard said 70 percent would go into competitive grants for programs addressing addiction, including potentially drug courts; 15 percent to programs benefiting crime victims; and 15 percent to drug-related efforts at the legislature’s discretion.
“We think (Judge VanDerKarr) is absolutely wrong about the drug courts,” Mr. Willard said. “Issue 1 would provide more money for drug courts, which are underfunded at this point. It will mean more treatment for people in their communities instead of being locked up in jail or prison with an addiction problem and posing no safety risk to their communities.”
He said that if voters take Judge VanDerKarr’s advice and explore more deeply into the language of the constitutional amendment, they will favor Issue 1.
“We hope that people look into this instead of listening to scare tactics from the other side,” Mr. Willard said. “We strongly believe that a yes vote on Issue 1 will save $100 million a year by keeping nonviolent people out of prisons where they don’t belong and in communities and treatment.”
The ballot issue has been backed financially by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an organization founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, and George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center in Washington.
While judges and prosecutors generally oppose it, an organized campaign to defeat it at the polls has yet to emerge.
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