COLUMBUS, Ohio (WDTN) – Last fall the voters of Ohio went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly rejected Issue One.
The ballot measure did a number of things including reducing the penalties for low-level drug possession from a 4th and 5th degree felonies to misdemeanors.
Wednesday, that portion of the ballot measure was before Senate lawmakers again as part of a stand-alone option.
“People found that Issue One was far broader than that and did a lot of things they didn’t want in terms of reducing sentences for some violent crimes and otherwise it was much more expansive than just the simple steps that SB 3 is taking,” said the Ohio Public Defender Tim Young.
Young was one of several to testify in favor of the bill.
He says, people convicted of low-level drug possession felonies are not the same level of threat to society as people who are convicted of more serious violent crimes.
“Let’s take our brothers and our sisters and our uncles out of the Felony world and give them treatment in our communities and help them solve their addiction issues, which is an illness not a crime,” said Young.
Young says by sending non-violent offenders on low-level charges to prison, their punishment is creating a bigger problem for them and the rest of society.
“We lock them up in a prison for a short amount of time, not enough time to provide treatment, not enough time to provide job skills training; we divorce them from every support piece they have, so they are not near their families, we’ve taken away their jobs, if they had housing they lost their housing, and then we let them out; but only after we’ve housed them with very violent people,” said Young.
Young says in prison they are forced to learn how to survive in a violent world and then when they are out much of society rejects them.
“Felonies are America’s Scarlet Letter,” said Young. “90-95% of employers won’t even talk to you if you have a felony conviction.”
Louis Tobin is the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association which opposes the bill.
“That may be true; and look, the State has taken steps to help address that,” said Tobin. “We’ve expanded sealings so that you seal up to five felonies now; we’ve expanded the intervention in leu of conviction process, so you can walk away from a court treatment program without a conviction record.”
He also says, you aren’t going to prison on your first offense, or even your second or third in many situations.
“People are receiving already several chances at treatment by the time a person goes to jail; particularly by the time they go to prison,” said Tobin.
He also says the State has to be careful about the message it is sending.
“Saying that a person can have 49 hits of Heroin and that that’s a misdemeanor offense and that you’re going to walk away with probation and that the punishment for that is the same, if you’re an under-age kid, as drinking a beer; doesn’t send the right message to people about how dangerous Heroin is.”
And Tobin says you just cannot take away the threat of prison.
“The system is not perfect,” said Tobin. “We support expanding treatment options; we support giving more people opportunities at treatment; but you can’t take that ultimate consequence away or it’s gonna have tragic consequences for some people.”
Some people don’t believe that, however.
Charles Jenkins testified in front of the committee Wednesday as well. He is the father of a heroin addict who died as the result of an overdose.
He once asked his son Alex why he risks death to keep doing drugs, and his son told him: “‘We just don’t think about it that way dad,’ so if you have the threat of death not a deterrent; a felony is no deterrent whatsoever,” said Jenkins.
Alex couldn’t find what his dad calls a meaningful job after being saddled with the felony charge.
Just like Young mentioned above, no one wanted to give him a chance.
“He couldn’t get a job at the local Dollar Store,” said Jenkins. “I believe with all my heart that he would be alive today if he could have gotten employment.”
Alex never actually spent a day in prison, but the idea of non-violent offenders grouped with violent offenders is something I asked Tobin about.
He told me, we should explore separating violent offenders from non-violent offenders in prison populations.
“Obviously, it would take some sort of commitment from the legislature and the Governor to fund a lockdown treatment facility like that, but I think it’s something that’s definitely worth exploring,” said Tobin.