Monday, Oct 22, 2018
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Drug sentencing up for vote

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Ohio Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign a law that could add as many as eight years to the sentences of those convicted of serious crimes involving drugs containing the powerful opioid fentanyl.

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A proposed Ohio constitutional amendment offered by the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign addresses a vital issue for the state.

Whether the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment is the right vehicle is something Ohioans probably haven’t given much thought to yet.

Even Gov. John Kasich confessed at a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday in Columbus, “I don’t know the details of [the ballot issue].”

Ironically, the governor was in the process of a signing a law that would take Ohio criminal sentencing law in the opposite direction — tougher sentences for drug offenses involving the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment would reduce lower-level nonviolent drug felonies to the level of a misdemeanor and would divert any savings from reduced prison use to treatment. Additionally, inmates serving time would get credit off their sentence for time spent in treatment and rehabilitation.

The proposed amendment has its Ohio backers, but the money to get this question on the ballot and to sell it to Ohio voters is coming from sources in California. The main funders are Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, the Open Society Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and two San Francisco groups, the Open Philanthropy Project Action Fund and Tides Advocacy.

The Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign has already spent nearly $3.8 million as of June 30 to raise the necessary 305,591 signatures to get on the Nov. 6 ballot. More will be spent on television ads and social media trying to garner voter approval.

We have three months in which to hear the arguments pro and con and decide which way to vote. Prosecutors have attacked the amendment, and retired state Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer, now executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, called it “a horrible idea.”

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Mr. Kasich withheld judgment but agreed that it is “important that low-level offenders not be put in our prison system.”

Many people would agree that low-level drug offenders don’t overcome their addictions by going to prison. And a short prison stay often only temporarily interrupts, and may even exacerbate, a drug addict’s vulnerability to his or her drug of choice.

What drug addicts need, and what would be most in society’s interest, is a criminal justice system that diverts into treatment those drug offenders who are amenable, where there is a better likelihood of rehabilitation and future employment.

When it comes to changing Ohio’s criminal code and sentencing laws, that’s a job for the Ohio General Assembly in collaboration with Ohio’s experts on the ground who understand and work in law enforcement, drug treatment, and incarceration.

Look no further than how the MacArthur Foundation grant efforts are working in Lucas County. In 2016, Lucas County received a $1.75 million grant to reduce its jail population, and it is succeeding in getting drug addicts into treatment and keeping them out of jail.

The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment offers a set of solutions which may or may not be the right solution for Ohio. The discussion should at least help Ohioans clarify the issue.

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