Members of the judiciary spoke out Wednesday against a Senate priority bill to overhaul the state’s drug sentencing laws.
The measure (SB 3) is too lenient on dangerous drugs like cocaine and opioids, according to Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge David Matia, who provided interested party testimony on behalf of the Ohio Judicial Conference.
Judge Matia also took issue with the proposition that a felony conviction is a barrier to employment.
“The reason that some people with felonies cannot find work is that they have an incomplete education, many jobs are too far away from a bus line, they lack the motivation to get up in the morning and get to work or simply, that they can still not pass a drug test,” he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“They still suffer from a substance abuse problem. The felony itself is not the true cause of lack of employment but it is the lack of work force basics and skills that employment requires, lacking in these individuals.”
Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) questioned that contention and whether there is any research to support it.
Judge Matia said he knows that more and more businesses are willing to hire those with felony records.
“That stigma pendulum is swinging, especially in a full employment economy,” he said.
The most glaring issue with the proposal, Judge Matia said, is the transfer of jurisdiction of unclassified misdemeanors to municipal courts.
Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Cappelli echoed those sentiments in telling members to keep in mind staffing, budget and jail overcrowding issues if that provision remains in the bill.
Chairman Sen. John Eklund (R-Chardon), a sponsor of the bill, said lawmakers are aware of the potential added cost of the measure. He also implied the shifting jurisdiction language may not survive the legislative process.
Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Jack Durkin, also testifying on behalf of the OJC, said he started the second drug court in the state. He said that while the threat of a felony charge may not deter drug use, the possibility of prison time keeps people engaged in treatment.
“The longer we keep someone engaged in treatment, the better the outcome,” he said. “Once that time period runs, let’s make it much easier to completely erase the felony charge. Maintain the hammer, but expand the carrot and benefits at the end. For those who aren’t successful, if it’s a simple possession case without more, drastically shorten the period of time for expungement, and expand its application.”
Testifying on behalf of the OJC and the Association of Municipal/County Judges of Ohio, Circleville Municipal Court Judge Gary Dumm said that without the threat of incarceration, it will make it harder for law enforcement to get information about the large drug dealers and suppliers.
“Most all law enforcement folks know that we cannot arrest ourselves out of this current drug problem,” he said. “However, without incarceration as an ultimate threat, no one will cooperate with treatment or law enforcement in the ongoing battle to stop the flow of drugs into our communities. As a result, law enforcement will begin turning a blind eye to drug possession itself and those who would have been assisted by law enforcement will merely be ignored.”
OJC Executive Director Paul Pfeifer challenged members of the General Assembly to come up with $1 billion to tackle the opioid crisis in Ohio.
“If you look at the level of the problem, it’s not that large,” he said of the amount.
Others, however, spoke highly of the bill, including Daniel Dew, legal fellow at The Buckeye Institute’s Legal Center. He praised the provisions on reclassification and new weight thresholds for drug offenses.
But he also called for the measure to be retroactive.
“Ohio could make its criminal justice and sentencing reforms retroactive, following the federal model adopted in last year’s bipartisan First Step Act. Unfortunately, the plea bargain system complicates any effort to make reforms automatically retroactive. In Ohio, approximately 97% of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains, which means that many people who were likely guilty of drug trafficking pleaded down to drug possession,” Mr. Dew said.
“The First Step Act accounts for this reality by allowing people to petition the court for retroactivity. Judges then have discretion to grant or deny the request according to the circumstances of each case.”
The panel also received written interested party testimony from the Ohio Poverty Law Center and the Alliance for Safety and Justice. The Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police also provided written opposition testimony.
Reprinted with permission from Gongwer News Service. https://www.gongwer-oh.com/programming/news.cfm?Article_ID=881130209