Gov. Taft Reluctantly Discovers Drug Law Reform

An attempt by a group of citizens to change Ohio's handling of nonviolent drug offenders has forced Gov. Bob Taft to hastily pull out, dust off and fine-tune his long-neglected policies regarding th

An attempt by a group of citizens to change Ohio's handling of nonviolent drug offenders has forced Gov. Bob Taft to hastily pull out, dust off and fine-tune his long-neglected policies regarding the criminalization of drug users.

As reported last month in CityBeat, the Ohio Committee for New Drug Policies (OCNDP) plans to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The initiative would require that certain nonviolent drug offenders receive treatment instead of incarceration.

With polls indicating that many view drug addiction as a disease, not a crime, the OCNDP initiative could succeed in Ohio. In recent ABC News and Columbus Dispatch polls, a majority of the respondents, respectively 69 and 74 percent, favored treatment over prison for drug users.

But the ballot initiative contains several provisions the Taft administration finds objectionable. According to documents obtained by the OCNDP from Taft, his wife and his staffers through a public-records request, the administration's primary concern is the OCNDP's proposed amendment limits judicial authority over drug offenders who fail to complete the treatment program.

These documents indicate that, because the administration recognizes the popularity of the OCNDP's message and don't want the initiative to pass, they might soon address drug policy reform.

During a July 2001 strategy meeting in Washington, D.C., Ohio state agency heads and anti-drug groups discussed the need for Ohio to counteract the OCNDP with policy reforms that the public would embrace.

"We must do drug reform if we want to win," writes Marcie Seidel, Hope Taft's chief of staff, in her meeting notes.

"[The] general public does not want to put users in prison — they want them to have treatment."

The message is also evident in meeting notes taken by Domingo Herraiz, director of Ohio's Office of Criminal Justice Services: "Develop legislation that would counteract the NDP possible amendment ... Let the first offensive strategy be the development of a legislative initiative that will show how progressive Ohio is."

Numerous other bullet points from this meeting demonstrate the emphasis the attendees place on preempting the OCNDP initiative through drug policy reform.

"Review and update our drug policies in order to counteract this initiative ... Understand that the public wants reform ... Meet with Criminal Sentencing Commission to adjust several Ohio laws that would be more palatable to the citizenry and weaken the position of the NDP ... Introduce legislation — on behalf of Ohio — that will show governor as 'reformer.' "

While Ohio administers a judicial program that provides treatment in lieu of incarceration and maintains the court monitoring favored by Taft, the program is so inadequately funded that it is nearly nonexistent. According to the administration's statistics, fewer than 5 percent of eligible drug offenders have access to Ohio's drug courts, the state's only program offering treatment as an alternative to imprisonment.

Such inadequate funding is difficult to understand, given the success rate of drug courts, as consistently shown in dozens of studies from around the country. In Dade County, Fla., only 11 percent of drug-court graduates reenter the judicial system, compared to a 60 percent recidivism rate for incarcerated drug offenders.

In Arizona, 78 percent of drug-court graduates remain drug-free. In Rochester, N.Y., drug courts cut a 70 percent recidivism rate to 11 percent. In Hamilton County, the home of Ohio's first drug court, the program reduced recidivism rates by 26 percent.

Because studies also show that drug courts quickly pay for themselves, Ohio's under-funding of drug courts is wholly unnecessary. In a recent press release, the U.S. Department of Justice, which offers grants for the establishment and operation of drug courts, reported that for every dollar spent on Portland, Ore.'s drug court system the city saved $2.50 in criminal justice expenses and an additional $7.50 on other crime-related costs, such as those related to theft and victimization.

The Arizona study cited above also revealed that its successful drug court program saved taxpayers $2.5 million in its first year of operation by keeping offenders out of expensive prisons.

The Taft administration is aware of the effectiveness and savings potential of drug courts. In a memo to Brian Hicks, Taft's chief of staff, Luceille Fleming, director of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, brags about the success of these courts.

"Ohio's drug courts have on average a 64 to 75 percent rate of keeping graduates free from arrest and future drug use," Fleming writes. "That's a phenomenal success story."

In the same memo, Fleming addresses both the fiscal soundness and effectiveness of drug courts.

"Drug courts cost less than prison time and are much more effective in breaking the cycle of addiction and incarceration," she writes.

According to notes taken at anti-OCNDP strategy sessions, the ballot initiative has finally forced the state's executive branch to consider expanding the drug court system.

"Increase drug courts in state ... Identify funding for drug court expansion ... Commit to removing nonviolent drug offenders from Ohio prisons," the notes say.

But even with the OCNDP breathing down its neck and even though they recognize drug courts work, Taft's administration still appears somewhat hesitant to implement these changes.

"[Drug reform] takes us to a place that we normally would not go, such as changing drug laws," say Herraiz's notes from the Washington meeting.

This hesitancy is also apparent in discussions concerning potential strategies for defeating the ballot initiative, strategies that exclude drug policy reform. One such strategy is to show voters the cost of the ballot initiative without showing the savings or social effectiveness.

"Determine what our costs are for the new legislation amendment — how much will it cost tax payers and sell that to the public — build off of the anti-tax theme as if this was taxation," the notes say.

Another option is to merely promote the current drug court system: "Attend drug court graduations along with a media representative."

Taft has virtually ignored the state's drug court system and, after three years in office, has yet to develop a comprehensive drug policy. Because of pressure applied by the OCNDP's ballot initiative, it now appears he will endorse, perhaps even reluctantly expand, drug courts.

But even if Taft is forced to finally act in a substantive manner, Ohio deserves more than this reactionary leadership. Ohio deserves a government that intelligently analyzes and evaluates important issues and energetically and voluntarily backs effective, proven and cost-effective strategies.

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