AKRON, Ohio — Bills working their way through the Ohio Legislature would reduce punishment for some drug crimes while favoring treatment over automatic prosecution.
The measures are part of a national debate over reducing prison populations while responding to the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic.
A proposal passed by the House last month expands the use of a program allowing judges to order treatment instead of prosecution for defendants facing low-level drug charges. Judges could deny treatment requests but would have to list reasons why they feel jail, fines or both are a better option.
The legislation would also make it easier for Ohioans to seal records involving low-level nonviolent and non-sexual offenses to help them move forward with their lives.
A pending Senate bill would reduce low-level drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and also allow treatment instead of prosecution. The court could put the misdemeanor cases on hold until offenders undergo treatment.
“And if they complete that treatment, then the case is never prosecuted, never part of that person’s record,” said state Sen. John Eklund, a Republican from Portage County and Judiciary Committee Chairman and co-author of the bill. “If they screw up, they’ll be convicted or prosecuted on a unclassified misdemeanor.”
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor supports the House bill and treatment over prosecution in appropriate cases. She tells the Akron Beacon Journal that Ohio can’t arrest and incarcerate its way out of the addiction epidemic.
“We need treatment. The question is, how do you incentivize someone to seek treatment and to stay in treatment?” said O’Connor, a former Summit County judge and prosecutor.
O’Connor opposes the Senate bill out of concern it would “eliminate the fear of consequences” for breaking the law.
Rick Harig is a Catholic Charities recovery coach who counsels overdose victims in the emergency room at Summa Health’s Barberton Campus. He also is a recovering alcoholic.
Sealing records for addicts, eliminating the felony classification and prioritizing treatment “statewide would be a blessing in my opinion,” Harig said.
From 2004 to 2014, Ohio saw a 600 percent increase in the rate of opioid-related crimes, according to a report by the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services. Heroin and its synthetic alternatives overtook cocaine around 2011 as the second most common drug — after marijuana — in a criminal database fed by 72 percent of Ohio’s local law enforcement agencies.