Ohio’s Issue One, a ballot measure meant to reduce penalties for certain drug crimes, failed with a vote of 63 percent against and 37 percent in favor during Tuesday’s midterm election.
Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Michael Nelson was one of the few judges in the state who supported Issue One, pushing for rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Nelson said there were a few factors that may have led to the ballot measure’s defeat, including the confusing ballot language and the fact that it would have been a constitutional amendment.
“There was a fear factor. Some misread the ballot language, which gave them the indication there would be criminals running free,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the measure’s defeat is only the start of the conversation about criminal justice reform in Ohio. He said the next move is for proponents to sit down, see what needs to be cleaned up in the initiative, and come back. He said he still has hope.
“It got more than 1.4 million votes so there’s a significant amount of interest,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of interest in a first-time constitutional amendment that was going to be about change.”
As for the out-of-state money that supported Issue One, Nelson said he didn’t have a problem with that. Less than $20,000 came from Ohioans, while millions of dollars came from out-of-state, including a $1 million contribution from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
“People who are victims want to be rescued, they don’ t care who the rescuers are. So out-of-state money doesn’t bother me,” Nelson said. “What I’m concerned about is that we message right so that the majority of Ohioans see such an amendment or legislation would be beneficial to them and their families.”
Cuyahoga County Judge David Matia, meanwhile, was one of the county’s strongest opponents to Issue One.
“The legislature has already banned common pleas judges from sending nonviolent low-level offenders to prisoner at sentencing, so reform has already been taking place,” Matia said, adding that if you look at the number of prisoners in the system who are there for drug crimes, they are dangerous or repeat offenders.
“Nonviolent offenders, generally, are not found in prison unless they are repeat offenders,” Judge Matia said.
Matia said he believes the courts have made great efforts in treating people with dependency and addiction issues, but that the courts cannot do it alone.
“We need our partners in mainstream medicine to step up and open more detox facilities, get more doctors qualified to treat people, get more doctors who can prescribe Medication assisted treatment,” Judge Matia said. “That is the only way we’re going to dig ourselves out of this opioid crisis.”
DeMareo Cooper, executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the organization that led the initiative, said they plan to move the issue to the Ohio legislature next.
"This was never the end of something, it's always been the beginning of something," said Cooper.