This November, in just a couple of weeks, voters all across the state of Ohio will vote on Issue 1, a bill aimed at addressing mass incarceration through a constitutional amendment. I, however, have already placed my vote early and had already made my position on this issue clear months earlier when I worked with the Ohio Student Association helping to collect signatures to get this issue on the ballot. I believe very strongly that this bill is not only good for Ohio but should be used as a model for states across the country to follow after, and I would like to explain why.
First, I think that it is important to understand what passing the ballot initiative would mean for Ohio. There has been a lot of media attention drawn to the portion of the issue focusing on drug law, so it might be best to start there. If Issue 1 were to be passed, fourth and fifth degree (lower-level) felony charges for drug possession and/or use would be reclassified as misdemeanors and individuals convicted on such charges would not be eligible to serve prison time unless it was their third such charge in 24 months; those individuals currently serving time for these classifications of crime would also be eligible to appeal their sentence under this new amendment. Now, that’s a lot of words and stipulations and it has been vastly misconstrued by many politicians, so let’s break down what that actually means.
This bill does not take any laws off of the books; it does not make anything which is currently illegal, legal. Instead, what it seeks to do is implement sentencing reform so that our already overcrowded and expensive prisons do not continually become further overcrowded and expensive in service of locking away non-violent offenders. Proponents of this bill wish to see addiction treated as what it is: a disease. We don’t treat cancer or pneumonia or HIV/AIDS with incarceration, so why should we treat addiction any differently? Locking people away in prison for the use or possession of drugs does nothing but take away from the potential treatment these offenders could be receiving. In my 4000 level Sociology classes on Prisons and Jails and on the Criminal Justice System this semester, we’ve talked and read a lot about the research surrounding recidivism rates and there is substantial evidence that recidivism (meaning re-offending) rates are significantly higher for people convicted of drug crimes when they are sent to prison rather than placed in probation or given some other sentence.
Many politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine several times during the gubernatorial debates, have made it a point to emphasize the specifics of what constitutes a low-level charge for fentanyl possession, making the outrageous claim that someone could be found with enough fentanyl to kill 10,000 people and not be sent to prison. Even if it were true that this much fentanyl classified as only a fourth or fifth degree felony, these politicians should take issue instead with how are laws are on the books; as I previously stated, Issue 1 does not seek to change what is or is not illegal, only to change sentences. Secondly, prosecutors are still more than free to prosecute offenders on the charge of drug trafficking and/or drug dealing. As Mike DeWine himself points out, if someone has that much fentanyl, they are likely engaging in one of those two activities, so prosecutors need only do what they would likely currently do anyways and charge offenders accordingly.
The second part of our criminal justice system which this issue addresses is probation. While parole is what offenders are placed in after being released from prison early for good behavior, probation is an alternative sentencing program for offenders whom judges have deemed are not a danger or threat to society and therefore do not need to be imprisoned. Individuals on probation must abide by a variety of rules–things like showing up to regular meetings with their probation officer, paying mandated fees, staying employed, staying housed, avoiding alcohol and other drugs, etc. They may also face other more stringent requirements like using an ankle monitor or doing mandated community service. Currently, offenders on probation can be sent to prison at their probation officer’s discretion without an additional court date if they fail to abide by one of those stipulations, even if it is not a crime. For example, if an offender is unable to find employment because of structural barriers in place for people with felony convictions, or if they are subsequently as a result of this unemployment unable to pay the mandatory fees or afford housing or afford transportation to their meetings, they could be sent to prison. Under the current system, individuals can and have been sent to prison for nothing more than being late to a few meetings. If Issue 1 were to pass, it would require a gradated system of responses to non-criminal rule violations; several steps would have to be taken before someone on probation could go to prison without committing a new crime. This still would allow for imprisonment in the case of an offender who repeatedly and unflinchingly violates the terms of probation, but would help avoid imprisoning people who are not a threat to the community.
Thirdly, if Issue 1 were to pass it would overhaul the Ohio earned credit program. This, and not the drug law portion, as most media and advertising campaigns would have you believe, would have the most impact with respect to the number of human beings behind bars. The earned credit program, which nearly every state either has or has some very similar version, allows for incarcerated individuals to earn credit toward their release by participating in programming such as jobs training, education, community outreach, substance abuse treatment, cognitive and behavioral therapy, and various other programming options depending on the institution. Currently, out of the 44 states that offer inmates with some sort of earned credit program, Ohio is the stingiest of all of them; to earn just one day toward their release, inmates must participate in 30 days of programming and inmates can only earn up to a maximum of 8% of their sentence reduced. If Issue 1 were to pass, these numbers would change to one day toward their release for every two days of programming completed and a maximum sentence reduction of 25%. These changes would not apply to individuals convicted of violent and serious crimes such as rape, child abuse, pedophilia, and murder.
Finally, it’s time to talk about money. Depending on how much you know about the United States’ criminal justice system, you may or may not know that it is extremely expensive. For how this would affect Ohio specifically, researchers expect that if Issue 1 were to be passed, it would reduce the Ohio prison population by about 25%–or 10,000 human beings–over the next 10 years. This would amount to roughly $100 million saved annually once this reduction were actualized. Issue 1 takes the money saved specifically through the reduction in prison populations and dedicates 75% of it to publicly funded substance abuse treatment facilities for those suffering from addiction and dedicates the remaining 25% to funds for victims of violent crimes.
I wish that these final three points, rather than only the first part about drugs, were emphasized in the media’s coverage and in advertising circling around Issue 1. Not only do I think that voters ought to be informed about the portions of the bill which actually will have the largest scale impact on real human persons, but I also think that we ought to engage the public in a large-scale discourse about mass incarceration and its effects on not only those in prison, but also those who have family or friends in prison, and also its effects on the public at large. Issue 1, if passed, could be a major step in the right direction for Ohio in attempting to remedy the near-irreversible harm it has done to large swaths of our population, particularly poor and marginalized communities. It could also serve as an excellent blueprint to other states to do the same. There is a swell of rising bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, and it’s about time something is done about it.