Ohio lawmakers consider lessening penalties, encouraging treatment for low-level drug offenses

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

The Ohio legislature is considering a bill its bipartisan supporters say would encourage treatment and reduce penalties for drug addicts who are not also dangerous drug dealers.

Senate Bill 3, if passed, would do the following:

  • Reclassify possession of drugs for personal use as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. Drug trafficking offenses would remain felonies.
  • Allow judges to dismiss a criminal possession case if a defendant successfully completes court-ordered treatment.
  • Permit the records of misdemeanor and low-level felony drug possessions to be sealed after the offender completes a treatment program.

The reforms are similar, but not identical, to Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment on the Ohio ballot in 2018 that failed with 63% of the electorate voting no.

Senate Bill 3 passed the Ohio Senate in June and is currently in the Ohio House Criminal Justice Committee. The bill must pass by the end of the year or it will have to be reintroduced during the next legislative session beginning in 2021.

Advocates for SB3 testifying during a committee hearing on Nov. 19 said that treatment, not incarceration, will help address Ohio’s drug epidemic, which every year claims thousands of lives.

“Putting people in cages does not make them better,” said Stephen JohnsonGrove, the strategy director for Ohio Transformation Fund. “Senate Bill 3 would simply be a very modest step away from using incarceration as a strategy to deal with a health problem.”

Critics of the bill have said the threat of a felony and incarceration are important tools for incentivizing treatment.

Paulding County Sheriff Jason Landers testified during the Nov. 19 hearing that his county’s drug court implemented five years ago would not have been successful if its participants had not begun with incarceration.

Judge Jeffrey Reed of the Allen County Court of Common Pleas said in his written testimony that “it is ‘coerced treatment,’ and it works because the participants know there are serious consequences for non-compliance with treatment. Making possession a misdemeanor will erase the serious consequences.”

Opponents who have testified against the bill include the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, Ohio Judicial Conference and the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police. Many of these members of the Ohio criminal justice system expressed support for aiding drug addicts and victims of the opioid epidemic but said this bill is not the way to do so.

Proponents of the bill that submitted testimony include the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and some right-leaning organizations like the Buckeye Institute.

“As a young officer I always made more arrests than our department expected, thinking that I was excelling in serving the community,” Thomas Thompson, executive director of Kettering Health Network Police Department and retired assistant chief of Miamisburg police, said in his written testimony. “Yet, in hindsight, I cannot say that I know of even one person who conquered their addiction because they were arrested and incarcerated for a drug offense. If anything, the arrests we make for low-level drug possession are likely making things worse.”

Having a felony record can impact a person’s ability to find a job or housing. In Ohio, there are hundreds of restrictions on felons, including prohibition on some occupational licenses and fields of work.

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