When crime rises, the first inclination of lawmakers is punishment. Longer sentences, mandatory minimums and extended periods of supervision all add to the cost of the criminal justice system with little impact on the rate of recidivism.
For politicians, that’s a tough sale to the public. Trying to convince taxpayers that it’s more prudent and cost effective to invest in rehabilitation rather than punishment can cost a lawmaker his job.
Ohio is in a position to proceed with meaningful sentence reform without waiting on politicians to act. A bipartisan coalition of community, law enforcement, faith and business leaders has proposed a ballot measure for November to reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.
Supporters of the “Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation” amendment submitted 730,031 signatures recently to the various county election boards. The Ohio Secretary of State has until July 24 to certify or reject signatures. To qualify for the ballot, 305,591 valid signatures of Ohio registered voters are needed.
The reform initiative comes at a time when Ohio is in the midst of one of the nation’s most lethal periods of drug abuse. Ohio’s drug overdose deaths rose 39 percent – the third-largest increase nationwide – between mid-2016 and mid-2017, according to figures released earlier this year by the federal government.
The state’s opioid crisis continued to explode in the first half of last year, with 5,232 Ohio overdose deaths recorded in the 12 months ending June 30, 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just across the border, Pennsylvania saw the largest increase in overdose deaths during that same period.
The escalation of drug deaths in Ohio was nearly three times the 14.4 percent increase in deaths nationally, which grew to about 67,000 across the U.S., according to government estimates.
In Columbus, Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz said that the more recent estimates are even more grim.
“Compare the first three quarters of 2017 to the first three quarters of 2016,” Ortiz told the Columbus Dispatch. “So, an actual comparison day by day – we’ve already seen a 57 percent increase.”
Fentanyl is what’s mostly spurring the additional deaths, officials said. The synthetic opiate has been cut into the heroin supply and, in some cases, replaced heroin that’s sold on the streets, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Fentanyl is more deadly because it’s about 50 percent stronger than heroin and is being altered to create a more potent fentanyl, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Ohio’s reform initiative is risky. It is a long-term investment when people are looking for an immediate fix. Money saved from those affected by the amendment would be diverted to substance-abuse programs and to crime victims’ services.
Under the drug treatment and rehabilitation amendment, possessing, obtaining or using a drug or drug paraphernalia would be a misdemeanor offense, with a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and $1,000 fine. First and second offenses within a two-year period could only be punished with probation. The amendment would not apply to drug dealers.
Convicted individuals could receive a half-day credit against their sentence for each day of rehabilitative work or programming, up to 25 percent of the total sentence.
An individual on probation for a felony would not be sent to prison for a non-violent violation of probation.
The question facing policy makers: Is public safety better served by incarcerating drug offenders, or would drug treatment and prevention programs be more efficient and effective at curbing drug abuse and promoting public safety?
According to the Justice Policy Institute, studies by the nation’s leading criminal justice research agencies have shown that drug treatment, in concert with other services and programs, is a more cost effective way to deal with drug offenders.
Ohio appears to be on the right track.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.