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Myth v. Fact: The truth about Ohio’s sentencing reform bill

Nov 4, 2019 by AFP

Each year, Ohio spends nearly $2 billion to hold 50,000 people in prison, many of them low-level, non-violent people convicted of drug possession.  

Many of these incarcerated individuals suffer from substance use disorders — which incarceration does nothing to solve. Treatment is the solution.

What’s more, the stain of a felony conviction haunts these individuals and their families, by preventing the individual from finding employment and housing and getting an education.

Ohio lawmakers on both side of the aisle have developed an answer to this multifaceted problem. Senate Bill 3 represents real sentencing reform that would, among other things, make possession of small amounts of illicit substances an unclassified misdemeanor.  

There are several misconceptions surrounding SB3 regarding what it would and would not do. Here are three myths about this criminal justice reform legislation — along with the facts: 

“Even if it helps some, won’t this legislation increase crime and drug use? After all, it reduces the penalties for drug possession.” 

Other states have enacted legislation like SB3 and have had positive results. Oklahoma reclassified low-level possession as a misdemeanor in 2017 and has seen no increase in overall crime rates. Harsh mandatory minimums, on the other hand, haven’t been found to increase public safety or reduce the availability of drugs. 

Critics of reform claim that simply removing those in possession of drugs from the streets will reduce drug crimes.  

That isn’t so. 

Most individuals affected by strict mandatory minimums are those that can be easily replaced in drug rings. That’s why SB3 also increases penalties for large-scale drug trafficking with intent to sell.  

More incarceration doesn’t stop drug crime. We need to be smarter, not just tougher. 

“Doesn’t SB3 take discretion out of the hands of judges who have the greatest insight into what punishment is most appropriate? Reclassifying low-level drug possession as a misdemeanor could rob judges of the power to punish accordingly.” 

On the contrary, SB3 allows judges to retain the “stick” of a longer misdemeanor sentence without tagging people with unnecessary felony convictions.  

Under this bill, those in possession of drugs could still be subject to a year in prison. That could happen if the judge decides, for example, that the person is deemed a threat to others. 

Mandatory minimums are what restricted judges’ authority, forcing them to issue overly harsh punishments.  

“This bill isn’t politically popular. At a time when we’re suffering a drug crisis, do people really want to make laws easier on drug crime?” 

Support for sentencing reform for low-level, non-violent folks isn’t unpopular. According to a poll conducted by the bipartisan Justice Action Network, 87% of voters support the type of sentencing reform proposed in SB3. 

Moreover, most voters believe that people suffering from substance use disorders would be better suited to treatment rather than incarceration. 

SB3 is a step in the right direction toward effective sentencing reform that would improve our justice system and make us safer. Tell lawmakers: Support SB3. It’s time to offer fellow Ohioans a second chance.