Sunday, September 9, 2018
Ohio is facing a drug addiction crisis, the likes of which are unprecedented in our state’s history. Every day, Ohioans are desperately seeking treatment, looking for help to save families and lives. Too often, they find nothing – or worse – they find only arrests and incarceration.
For five years, I served Ohio as the warden of several prisons. I saw firsthand the growth of our prison system, and how far too many people cycling in and out got worse, not better, in an environment that was not designed to address addiction. Instead of focusing our justice-system resources on serious and violent crime, our state is now home to one of the largest prison systems in the nation, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and failing to help struggling communities in need. Today, our state is at a breaking point. We must make a major change in how we address the cycle of addiction and crime.
STATE ISSUE 1
That’s why I support Issue 1. The measure focuses law enforcement on serious and violent crime; reduces overuse of our crowded prison system in addressing drug addiction; and, expands drug treatment and rehabilitation to reduce repeat offending. The measure is about common sense and public safety – and it provides a long overdue solution to the crippling crisis we face today.
Unfortunately, critics of Issue 1, most of whom work for the broken justice system, claim this measure ties the hands of law enforcement in going after large quantities of dangerous drugs. That’s not true. Law enforcement hands were tied when it became their job to arrest the same people with addiction problems repeatedly, with no real treatment available to stop the cycle. By expanding treatment options beyond incarceration for low-level drug possession, Issue 1 gives law enforcement a chance to focus upstream on trafficking and serious crimes.
Contrary to what critics say, Issue 1 maintains Ohio’s numerous felony statutes to prosecute people preying on communities – from drug trafficking; to possession of criminal tools; to permitting drug abuse; or, corrupting others with drugs and more, even when quantities possessed are small. Possessing drug amounts large enough to harm hundreds of people is trafficking and these offenders face many years behind bars.
What critics have left unsaid is the real elephant in the room: What our state is doing today is failing Ohio’s most vulnerable communities. For years, Ohio’s drug crisis – and the state’s prisons budget – have grown nonstop. We now have one of the worst drug epidemics in the country and a crowded prison system that costs more than $1.8 billion per year, with another $2 billion prison being planned. Anyone who says we need to stay the course is ignoring the hard reality: That is what got us here in the first place.
After retiring from my career as a state corrections official, I began working to solve root problems. I’m now a treatment provider. It is the most rewarding and most heartbreaking, work I’ve done. Every day I meet parents talking about what it would mean to them if their children had gotten into treatment, before jail. Medical professionals share my heartache about the lack of options and the growing need. I meet police talking about how we cannot arrest our way out of these problems. Experience tells me it’s not a lack of resources. Just look at the prisons budget – the state has plenty of public safety dollars. It’s lack of political will to admit failure and move in a new direction.
Issue 1 is only a start. Everyone from the Statehouse on down will need to roll up their sleeves to change course. But it is a step that we must take. Issue 1 is projected to save $100 million in prison spending annually. All that money goes to where it is desperately needed: substance abuse treatment and support for victims of crime.
The government has failed to solve our state’s drug epidemic while Ohioans urgently need real solutions. It is times like these when our state constitution provides the people an opportunity for direct democracy. We don’t have to continue doing what doesn’t work for the people of Ohio and our communities. Issue 1 is an important solution that voters should approve to ensure our state adopts practices that have been proven to work for public safety and drug rehabilitation. On Election Day, we should move Ohio forward by approving Issue 1.
Dennis Baker worked 28 years in corrections, including at Ohio State Reformatory.