Lawmakers want common ground with opponents over drug possession charges reform

Ohio

Supporters say felonies for people struggling with addiction but not charged with trafficking do them more harm than good

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Lawmakers plan to seek common ground with opponents over reforming drug possession charges.

Most lawmakers have left the halls of the Statehouse for the holiday break and will not return for several weeks, leaving behind unfinished business on hundreds of bills.

One of those pieces of legislation is Senate Bill 3.

In Ohio, bills are given numbers as they are introduced and, usually, the first few bills introduced in both chambers lay out priorities for that particular group of lawmakers.

In the Senate, Senate Bill 3 has indeed been a priority with several hearings held on the bill to allow as many people as necessary to testify on the merits of the legislation.

Supporters, interested parties and opponents have all provided lawmakers sitting on the judiciary committee with their thoughts on what should stay, what should go and what can or should change about the bill.

Now, nearly a year since it was introduced, the bill is getting closer to its final form.

According to Senate President Larry Obhof (Medina-R), there has been agreement on roughly 90% of the bill but the remaining 10% is very important to get right.

He wants to sit down with members of the judiciary committee and opponent groups like the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney’s Association to see if they can reach common ground.

For their part, the OPAA says common ground could be reached in some areas of the bill but it does draw a hard line at a certain point.

Meanwhile, bill supporter Judge Larry Jones, Sr. says his views on addiction and culpability have adjusted over his time presiding over drug courts in Cleveland.

“What I’m hoping for is that judges, prosecutors and law enforcement say, ‘Well, let’s think about it. Is what we’re doing really working and if not, how can we improve?'”

Louis Tobin, the executive director of OPAA, provided this insight into where the organization is coming from:

“It’s mistaken to say that people’s views of drug addiction haven’t changed over the last 10 to 20 years. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have pre-trial diversion programs for addicts, intervention in lieu of conviction or certified drug courts and we had a very limited opportunity to seal records. Now we have all three of those things and one of the most expansive record sealing laws in the country. We have thought outside of the box. We know that these are policies that work. We need to make sure that there are more opportunities for the right people to do what works. But there’s a point where thinking too far outside of the box becomes dangerous. Calling possession or use of highly addictive, potentially deadly drugs like heroin and meth a misdemeanor is dangerous and it could undermine what works.”

Shakyra Diaz, the Ohio State director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, says felonies for people struggling with addiction who are being charged with possession and not trafficking of drugs do them more harm than good.

“Felony convictions do a few things very effectively. They stand in the way of people accessing employment, they stand in the way of people accessing housing and education, even after they have recovered,” Diaz said. “Those accountability measures should not be a lifetime of barriers, which is what currently happens in the State of Ohio.”

Perhaps no one knows that better than Charles Jenkins. His son died of an overdose after returning to heroin when he couldn’t get a job because of a felony on his record that, according to Jenkins, should not have been there. 

Jenkins’ son had been charged with possession and was given the option of getting treatment instead of being charged with a felony.

His son completed the treatment at a facility in Michigan, then returned to Ohio clean and ready to get his life back on track.

However, when his son attempted to get a job at a local dollar store, his employment was denied due to the felony charge being on his record.

Unable to get work, his son regressed into his addiction and overdosed.

Jenkins was disappointed to hear the bill would not be passed by the Ohio Senate before the end of the year.

“What’s disheartening is every day that goes by is an opportunity for it to ruin some more lives,” he said.

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