Supporters, Skeptics Emerge for Amendment Reducing Sentencing for Drug Offenses

A proposed amendment to Ohio's constitution on November's ballot would reclassify many nonviolent drug offenses as misdemeanors

Ohio voters will get to decide in November on a constitutional amendment that would reduce penalties for non-violent drug crimes. The ballot initiative, called Issue 1, has already won some high-profile supporters.

But while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they support its overall aims, some Republicans question whether a constitutional amendment is the way to achieve those goals.

Supporters gathered more than 305,000 valid signatures from voters across the state to land the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment on the ballot.

The proposal seeks to reduce Ohio’s prison population by reclassifying nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession or use crimes as first-degree misdemeanors. The amendment would make the maximum penalty for such crimes 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, and first and second offenses would be punishable by probation only. It would also direct the state to give half a day’s credit up to 25 percent of an inmate’s sentence for each day of rehab or educational work completed.

Under Issue 1, prisoners currently incarcerated could petition courts to make the changes to sentencing classifications retroactive, meaning those who were imprisoned under the old rules could be eligible for release.

Under the proposal, the incarceration cost savings netted by the early release of those inmates would be funneled back into drug treatment programs and other rehabilitation efforts.

A number of Democrat state lawmakers have applauded the measure.

Cincinnati-based State Sen. Cecil Thomas is a member of the Ohio General Assembly’s Criminal Sentencing Commission. That commission found that Ohio’s drug possession incarcerations have increased by a third. The first-term Democrat says the ballot initiative is the right approach to rolling back those increases and reducing the number of people in the state’s prison system.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, also of Cincinnati, says he’s supportive of the effort’s overall goal, but that legislation, not an amendment, is the best way to deal with the issue. That’s a sentiment other Republicans in the General Assembly share. Many feel that sentencing reform is necessary, but worry about locking something so specific into the state’s constitution.

The ballot initiative could play into November’s gubernatorial race. Democrat candidate Richard Cordray has signaled his support for the effort, while his Republican opponent, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, has so far been mum on the plan.

Cordray says he “wholeheartedly” supports Issue 1 because it rolls together several worthy aims — reducing taxpayer expenditures on incarceration, increasing chances for inmates to gain rehabilitation and combating Ohio’s opiate epidemic.

“In Ohio, we incarcerate too many people who are in desperate need of treatment for addiction — not jail time," Corday wrote in a recent statement. "And we know those charged and imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses are disproportionately people of color. I firmly believe that it is immoral for Ohioans to lose a chance at having a future because of addiction or because their disease is being treated as a crime instead of the public health issue that it really is."