Will Issue 1 free drug addicts from prison and free up $100 million a year for more drug treatment in the face of Ohio’s opioid crisis? Or is that a hopeless wish being used to sell a constitutional amendment that would tie the hands of judges running drug courts and allow people possessing dangerous drugs to remain on the street?
Supporters and opponents of Issue 1 tried to get beyond the dense ballot language and explain what it means to voters Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Columbus Metropolitan Club.
“This is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll make on Election Day, or earlier if you’re an early voter,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court, a prominent opponent of the measure, speaking to the audience at the Boathouse at Confluence Park. “Issue 1 involves the safety of our state, of our communities.”
Issue 1 would reduce low-level felony possession or use of drugs to a misdemeanor offense, carrying probation but no jail or prison time. It also would prohibit those on probation from being sent to prison for initial, nonviolent violations. And it would allow felons imprisoned for crimes other than murder, rape and child molestation to reduce their sentences by up to 25 percent by participating in rehabilitation and education programs.
O’Connor said that one of many problems with Issue 1 is that it would amend the state Constitution, where it would be “written in stone,” and any problems that emerge could be fixed only by another amendment.
But a supporter, state Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, pointed out that supporters were able to gather 730,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Just as with redistricting reform, “the citizens had to take charge because the legislature was not doing its job,” he said.
One of the main lines of attack for Issue 1 opponents is that it would take away judges’ ability in drug courts to threaten probationers with jail time if they don’t stay in drug treatment. Drug courts are widely recognized as an effective form of treatment, but their capacity is small.
Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Stephen L. McIntosh, the head of the local drug court, said his program has the capacity to take in 50 people at a time, and of that number, and about 10 will graduate within 18 months.
There were 520 opioid deaths in Franklin County in 2017, the coroner’s office reported.
If the impact of drug courts on Ohio’s opioid crisis might be overstated, O’Connor said Issue 1′s promised impact on Ohio prison population definitely is.
Supporters say that partly by downgrading fourth- and fifth-degree-felony drug-possession crimes to misdemeanors, prison populations would be reduced enough to save $100 million from Ohio’s $1.3 billion annual prison budget. O’Connor pointed out that of the state’s 49,500 prisoners, just 5,600 are incarcerated for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies of all kinds.
“Significantly, many of those are not drug-possession cases,” she said.
The opponents of Issue 1 have gotten their message across to many groups. For example, the Ohio State Bar Association announced Wednesday it had set up a No on Issue 1 website.
“While many agree that Ohio’s drug laws merit change, Issue 1 is the wrong solution,” association President Robin Weaver said in an emailed statement. “Issue 1 will lock poorly written policy into the Ohio Constitution, and strips Ohio judges of their discretion in sentencing drug offenders.”
However, opponents are trying to reach the masses. The Yes on Issue 1 campaign has received $4.86 million — including money from charities supported by Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz. Billionaire Democratic donor George Soros kicked in $1 million. The group’s resources allowed it to announce its third TV ad Wednesday, one featuring a 26-year law-enforcement officer who supports Issue 1.