Ohio’s Issue One on the Nov. 6 ballot is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some officials trying to defeat drug addiction locally.
And while its supporters sell the proposed amendment as a method for funding drug treatment, Fulton County Prosecutor Scott Haselman said the legislation isn’t purely representative of that goal.
“Everyone’s in favor of drug treatment. However, the devil’s in the details of this amendment,” he said. “It’s a constitutional amendment that would significantly change portions of Ohio criminal law.”
Issue One, or the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment, would turn all drug possession crimes to misdemeanors, regardless of the amount of drugs involved. Incarceration would not be considered for offenders until after they’ve had two drug possession charges within two years. Prison would not be enforced for their non-criminal probation violations.
The amendment would also allow an Ohio inmate the opportunity to receive up to a 25 percent reduction in their sentence through a credits program, provided they become involved in a prison rehabilitative, work or educational program. Under the language of the amendment, eligible inmates would include those convicted of any crime with the exceptions of murder, rape, and child molestation.
Money the state would presumably save from the ensuing decrease in inmates would be mandated for drug treatment, rehabilitation, and victim programs.
However, an economic study of Issue One by the Ohio Office of Budget and Management states: “…OBM concludes that the proposed amendment would not produce significant savings to the state and could (depending on interpretation) actually increase costs to the state by tens of millions of dollars. For local governments, the proposed amendment would add costs that likely would not be covered by potentially available appropriations under amendment.”
“There’s this cascading of costs that would occur,” Haselman said. He added there is concern that money presumably saved by a reduction in inmates would still fall short of the funding necessary for additional drug treatment.
“People have to study this issue and see what all it entails,” he said.
Fulton County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson said those sponsoring Issue One mistakenly assume offenders with fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug charges serve prison time in Ohio. He said the sponsors’ plan under the amendment is to use the state money covering those incarceration costs to instead provide drug treatment.
In fact, Judge Robinson said, under current state law the assumption is that fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders will not serve prison time. “So there’s no money to save. (And) we don’t have tens of millions of dollars for treatment,” he said.
And with the amendment’s language allowing inmates across the board to pursue sentence reductions of up to one-fourth, “there are going to be a lot of very bad people who are going to be applying to get out of jail,” he said.
Locally, the impact of Issue One would be almost impossible to gauge, Judge Robinson said. But he’s certain it would hurt the ability of area courts to incarcerate a drug abuser in an effort to persuade them to seek treatment.
“Sometimes, incarceration is needed to make people just healthy enough that they can make an informed decision,” he said. “(Issue One) is going to take away the biggest resource we have available to get people into treatment, and that’s the threat of prison.”
Issue One sponsors may have good intentions, “but when you start looking into it there are a lot of bad things going on in there,” said Fulton County Sheriff Roy Miller. “This thing is just terrible.”
The amendment’s language can be described as murky, he said, and “takes the key away from legislators” to change the wording in laws when it becomes necessary.
“This makes it hard for legislators to change the laws quickly when it comes to newer drugs,” Miller said. “If Issue One passes, it’s part of the Constitution, which is not easy to change.”
He agrees that incarcerating offenders can be necessary “to get them in their right mind to get rehab. It starts by getting them locked up and getting them clean.”
But Miller said since he’s been the sheriff Fulton County has made advances in tackling the local drug epidemic. Examples include the county’s Drug Court, which recently celebrated its first graduate; and the 911 Good Samaritan Law, which allows charges to be dropped against first offenders in overdose cases if, within 30 days, they have a drug screening performed by a professional and complete any recommendations.
He said Ohioans don’t need Issue One, and he doesn’t think individuals in other states should try to influence how the local drug problem is tackled. Some donations to Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign to support the proposed amendment have come from individuals in the western United States, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.
“We have programs in place right now. Give the locals a chance to try what they think will work in Ohio,” he said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.