An election battle is brewing in Ohio over how to handle those convicted of nonviolent drug charges.
Currently, defendants can face felony charges, especially if they’re caught with drugs like heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.
A proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution, called the Drug and Criminal Justice Policies Initiative (Issue 1), would make all nonviolent possession cases misdemeanors, meaning judges could not send offenders to prison.
Mahoning County Judge John Durkin said if the amendment passes, it would wipe out the ability to use that prison time as an incentive to get someone into drug treatment.
Durkin oversees the local felony drug court, which uses the threat of prison time to get nonviolent drug offenders into treatment. But if the amendment passes, the court would cease to exist.
“Who would want to go into a program when they could simply get probation with no consequence,” Durkin said.
Supporters of the measure, including Ohio gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray, claim money saved by not sending offenders to prison would pay for treatment programs.
Cordray released the following statement on Tuesday:
I hear from law enforcement leaders across Ohio that we cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic and that we shouldn’t be jailing addicts when what they really need is substance abuse treatment. I agree with them and that’s why I support Issue 1. This measure will save money for taxpayers, help individuals get the treatment they need to turn their lives around and allow us to focus our prison space on violent offenders.”
Durkin argues that drug courts succeed by holding prison time over offenders’ heads.
“Then you would have those facilities there with no hammer and no incentive for an individual to go,” he said.
Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene said if the amendment is approved, it would lessen the effect of law enforcement. He said the issue is already drawing widespread opposition from those involved with the Ohio criminal justice system.
“From what I understand, it even includes fentanyl in there – would potentially be a misdemeanor. Well, that’s offensive,” Greene said.
With millions of dollars already spent in getting the measures on the ballot, opponents are now putting together a campaign of their own to stop it.