Turning spotlight on state Issue 1

The recent debate on Vindy.com over the merits of state Issue 1 is important viewing as the proposed consitutional amendment is a significant change to the justice system.

If approved by voters during the Nov. 6 election, it would reduce criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.

You can still view the 90-minute debate on Vindy.com.

On the opponent side was Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge John Durkin. The latter runs the county drug court.

The proponents were Shakyra Diaz, managing director of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, and Stephen JohnsonGrove, deputy director for policy at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center.

The issue is rather complicated.

Proponents say there are too many people in state prisons for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

The issue would reclassify fourth- and fifth-degree-felony drug possession and drug-use crimes to first-degree misdemeanors. That would remove the potential for prison time for those convicted.

The only time a person could be sent to prison for that is a third conviction in a 24-month period.

Instead of prison, Issue 1 would require community service, treatment or local jail for people convicted of those crimes.

Chief Justice O’Connor said of the nearly 50,000 inmates in state prisons, only 2,700 are incarcerated for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies and not all of them are there for drug possession and use so this proposal is misguided.

JohnsonGrove said too many people who don’t belong in prison are there and this issue would save at least $100 million a year in prison spending that would go to addiction treatment and trauma recovery programs for crime victims.

But Judge Durkin said that figure is “pure speculation” as it’s not known how much money would be saved.

Proponents also say the issue reduces recidivism and protects public safety.

Diaz said: “We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of this problem. We need other options.”

Opponents say it ties the hands of the judicial system by removing the potential incarceration of people with lethal amounts of drugs.

They also say it undermines treatment as it’s not required by this amendment and has the unintended consequence of reducing prison sentences for violent offenders.

Chief Justice O’Connor said the proposal makes the possession of fentanyl in amounts less than 20 grams a misdemeanor with probation as the maximum sentence. She said 19 grams of fentanyl could kill about 10,000 people.

She also said if Issue 1 is approved by voters, Ohio would have the “most lax drug possession laws in the country.”

Other states

But JohnsonGrove said that isn’t true. There are 11 other states with similar drug laws, he said, and “the sky hasn’t fallen.”

Also, he said, large amounts of fentanyl would continue to be charged as drug trafficking.

The chief justice responded that the legislatures of the other states passed laws while Ohio would be the only one to have it written into its constitution.

Constitutional amendments have been approved by Ohio voters over the years for a variety of things from legalizing casinos to legislative redistricting to mandating that a marriage only be valid between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the last one in 2015.

It’s a lot to digest.