Although Issue 1 , a criminal justice reform in Ohio that would have removed felony convictions for drug possession, failed 65 percent to 35 percent in the midterm election Tuesday, the conversation has now shifted, and more legislators are interested in treatment for drug users, rather than mass incarceration, according to experts contacted by The Crime Report.
“Even though the ballot initiative didn’t succeed, we created a huge new conversation across the state,” said J Bennett Guess, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio.
“Many opponents of issue 1 are coming out and saying we need more residential treatment. And they intend to act.”
For instance, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, is working with two former political rivals – Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat – to come up with new solutions.
Some of the proposed solutions include:
- Reducing most fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession charges to a first-degree misdemeanor. Fentanyl, carfentanil and date rape drugs would remain felony offenses.
- Stating a preference that those convicted of misdemeanor drug possession receive treatment and probation, but allowing judges to sentence offenders to county jail if needed.
- Allowing those currently in prison for fourth- and fifth-degree drug possession convictions to ask a judge to have those sentences reduced. That would eliminate a felony on their record, which can be a barrier to work.
- Expanding opportunities to seal past felony convictions.
- Eliminating mandatory prison sentences for nearly all drug offenses. There would be an exception for those convicted of the major drug offender specification – sometimes referred to as the drug kingpin law – for running a large-scale drug operation.
Klein initially opposed Issue 1, citing his concerns that it would let certain felons out early and hurt drug courts trying to get people into treatment, but said he agreed with the overall goal, reports the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Obhof said he will work with O’Brien, Klein and lawmakers to tackle more nuanced criminal justice reforms, starting in the coming months and continuing into the next two-year legislative session next year.
Ohio has long been considered “ground zero” of the nation’s opioid epidemic, thanks to the soaring number of opioid overdose deaths and the state’s position as a key distribution points for illicit fentanyl and heroin trafficked from Mexico and China.
Given the severity of the drug epidemic in Ohio, the failed ballot came as a surprise to many reform advocates.
Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman says he “did not expect that it would get crushed, going down to defeat 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent.”
Berman says Issue 1’s huge loss is startling given that Ohio’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown won re-election by 6 percent and its Democratic Governor candidate Richard Cordray, who endorsed Issue 1, lost by only four percentage points.
This means that a huge number of progressively minded voters decided to vote for liberal candidates and against Issue 1.
According to ACLU Ohio, some of the most aggressive opponents of the bill were judges.
For instance, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor contended that someone found with nearly 20 grams of fentanyl – enough of the dangerous opioid to kill 10,000 people – could no longer face prison time. Instead, they would face a misdemeanor and face a county jail sentence only after three offenses over two years.
It was clear the Ohio judges’ vocal opposition to Issue 1 influenced voters, said Bennett.
But, he said, they did so without offering any single new idea to solving the crisis. One of the things we need is new administrative guidance from the judiciary that will end the failed war on drugs and implement new responses instead, he proposed.
“We weren’t successful with constitutional amendment, but now is the time we will be successful through legislative action.”
Megan Hadley is senior staff writer for The Crime Report.