News: Year in Review: Heartland Disease

Ohio public policy took a mean turn

Dec 26, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jared M. Holder

Having served her sentence for sex with an inmate while a prison guard, Tammy Welton has learned she now must register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.

Fear, hatred and vindictiveness aren't the values most people strive to instill in their children. Nor do politicians tout that kind of stuff when they run for office. Yet that seems to be the motivation behind some of the most significant public policy developments in the Buckeye State in 2007.

Is this a bait-and-switch on the part of elected officials — or just social reality behind the polite facade we use when trying to woo businesses and stop the outward flow of population? If this is the heartland of America, then we have some serious plaque build-up, and the blood flow that it's restricting has to do with those who don't have money — the poor, immigrants and/or former criminals.

Businesses continue dumping pollution in low-income neighborhoods, and the city does little about it because of an unproven but politically expedient fear of losing jobs. That means poor people in Cincinnati bear an unfair burden of toxins and waste. The movement for environmental justice got a bit of support with the reinstitution of the city's Office of Environmental Quality this year. But City Councilman David Crowley's effort to implement environmental justice legislation is stalled (see "Equal Environmental Rights," issue of April 18).

Statewide efforts to develop environmental-justice legislation came to town with a planning session in February to help craft a new law for Ohio (see "Pollution for the Poor," issue of Feb. 28).

But any kind of new restrictions on companies discharging more toxins into Lower Price Hill, Winton Terrace and other low-income neighborhoods face huge obstacles because many politicians refuse to consider the research that proves strong environmental controls make good economic sense.

Elected officials in Columbus this year practiced equal-opportunity blindness when it came to the choice between evidence and scare tactics. Ohio enacted one of the most restrictive sex offender notification laws in the country (see "Next Comes Burning at the Stake," issue of Aug. 15). Rushed to avoid the loss law enforcement money for not implementing new federal standards, the bill showed that legislators are willing to sacrifice former lawbreakers.

In fact, they're willing to consider the equivalent of branding former offenders who have already done their time (see "Green Means 'Run Like Hell,' " issue of Aug. 6) — even though there's no proof that such laws improve public safety. In the end, the proposal to make former sex offenders use green license plates didn't become law.

Fear — as opposed to research — also played out in the state's legislation on undocumented workers, popularly called "illegal immigrants." Instead of looking at the positive impact of immigration, state officials passed a law making it illegal to transport or conceal undocumented workers (see "Alien Removal," issue of Aug. 13). The one glimmer of hope is the pending rejection of federal legislation requiring national standardization of drivers' licenses (see "Papers, Please," issue of Oct. 17). The goal of punishing undocumented workers — who would be unable to get the ID — will actually cost "law abiding citizens" and the states so much money that it's proving unpopular.

A long awaited study by the American Bar Association concluded Ohio's death penalty is fundamentally unfair (see "Law Group: Stop the Killing," issue of Sept. 26). Unfortunately, reform isn't likely. Lawmakers fear being called "soft on crime," so they tend to go to the opposite extreme, crafting more punitive laws.

House Bill 111, for example, seeks to expand the definition of neglected children to include a child "whose parents, guardian or custodian knowingly allows" a sexually oriented offender or juvenile delinquent "to reside in the same residence as the child." If the law passes, a teenage boy convicted of molesting his sister or a cousin will never be allowed to reunite with his family — or his parents could lose custody of their kids due to a "negligence" conviction. How are people supposed to learn from their mistakes and move on if we aren't even going to allow them to live in their own homes?

The next proposal will probably be to apply the concept to overnight guests. With the sex-offender registry on the Internet, any parent with a computer or access to a library could be considered negligent for not checking up on every person who spends the night in her home.

Much of what passed for "public policy" in Ohio this year was nothing more than re-election campaigns and campaign contributions in the making. Sure, our hearts are pumping here in the heartland, but they're racing with fear and paranoia about very real concerns that aren't being addressed in a substantive way by policy makers. Someone gets something by keeping us all on the verge of needing life support — namely, politicians who will swoop in with yet another miracle drug. If that one doesn't work, they'll try another and another because they care and want to make a difference.

Here's an idea for legislators: In 2008 take a deep breath, calm down and commit to living the really hard but highly prized values of compassion, patience, thoughtfulness and treating others the way you want to be treated. It takes courage and a lot of creativity to present effective policy, but what a powerful thing to start.