Judges oppose drug sentencing ballot issue


COLUMBUS — Judges tasked with imposing sentences on nonviolent drug offenders who appear before them on Tuesday came out in opposition to a fall ballot issue to downgrade such crimes to no more than misdemeanors.

If Issue 1 is approved by voters on Nov. 6, nonviolent drug offenders — with the exception of people linked to the most serious first, second, and third-degree drug-trafficking felonies — could be charged with no more than a misdemeanor. The issue would affect what are now lesser fourth and fifth-degree felonies.

Generally, that means offenders would be less likely to serve time in a state prison.

Issue 1 would also amend the Ohio Constitution to require that any savings realized from redirecting those convicted of possession charges away from state prison go instead into funding drug treatment programs and recovery housing.

People previously convicted of crimes involving possessing or using illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia could petition the courts to have their crimes downgraded and, if currently in prison, have their sentences reduced.

The Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association joins prosecutors in opposition to the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation amendment, arguing that it offers the carrot of drug treatment without the stick of potential prison time to convince an offender to reach for it.

Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings, association president, said board members and officers decided the organization should take a position and quickly agreed to oppose it. Copies of the group's position were circulated to the group's members for comment.

“It's going to decriminalize the people that are in possession of these drugs, and although it may sound good on its face, when you really read the whole amendment itself, it's going to do away with the treatment that the judges are working so hard to give these people,” Judge Jennings said,

Courts across Ohio, including Lucas County, have established specialized drug courts that have been successful in helping defendants maintain sobriety and get ongoing treatment, Judge Jennings said.

“If this passes, the drug courts will no longer be in existence,” Judge Jennings said. “There won't be any mechanism to help them maintain their treatment. There won't be an incentive for them to maintain their treatment.”

Wood County Common Pleas Judge Matthew Reger agreed that incarceration is not a solution for drug-addicted defendants, but he maintains it has to be an available remedy.

“Everything that is included in this initiative, courts are already trying to do, and they're trying to do it in a way that is specific to their community,” he said. “This takes away available resources to the court for rehabilitating people and doesn't give us the ability to use incarceration when it's necessary.”

The association argues that the ballot issue does not provide for funding to ensure that adequate rehabilitation infrastructure exists to accommodate those redirected from prison.

Issue 1 would also provide credit against inmates’ sentences for participation in rehabilitation, education, or work programs while behind bars. It would prohibit recommitting prior offenders to prison for probation infractions that are not in themselves new crimes.

Retired Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Scott VanDerKarr, an advocate of drug specialty dockets to promote treatment over prison for addicts, came to the defense of Issue One.

"Under state Issue 1 it should be clear that there is $70 million worth of funding for treatment options either inside the judicial system or outside the judicial system,” he said. “State Issue 1 provides that a defendant could receive up to 180 days in jail, and for a person with a substance use disorder that is more than enough of a stick to provide treatment with accountability."

In recent campaign filings, the backers of Issue 1 reported raising $4.1 million, most of which was used to get the signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot.

Of that, $1 million each came from 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.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association is also expected to come out in opposition to the ballot issue.

“The proposal exacerbates the drug problem,” said Executive Director Louis Tobin. “It sends the wrong message to youth about the seriousness of drugs like heroin, meth, and LSD. It tells drug traffickers that Ohio is open for business.”

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.