By EILEEN MCCLORY
Most Findlay and Hancock County officials who spoke to The Courier adamantly oppose State Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution on the November ballot.
Issue 1 would:
- Reduce all drug possession charges that are currently fourth-degree and fifth-degree felonies, the lowest level of felonies. Such charges would become misdemeanors. Drug trafficking charges would continue to be felonies.
- Prohibit judges from sentencing people who are charged with drug possession to jail, until their third offense within two years.
- Prohibit judges from sending people who have violated their community control sanctions, or probation, to jail if the person has not committed a new crime. Instead, such violations would require other sanctions, such as community service.
- Put any money saved from people not being incarcerated in Ohio prisons toward crime victim and drug treatment programs.
- Allow those who have already been convicted of obtaining or possessing an illegal drug to petition a court to reduce their conviction to a misdemeanor.
Hancock County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Starn is a staunch opponent of Issue 1.
Starn said without the sentencing option of prison time, it would be harder to get people into his drug court, a special court for drug offenders.
“If this passes, (offenders) know they don’t have to do anything the judge says, because there’s nothing the judge can do to them,” Starn said.
Starn said he also disagrees with the premise of changing fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to misdemeanors.
The way the law is currently set up, he said, anyone who has been caught with anything from a tenth of a gram of heroin or cocaine, a typical hit, to 19.99 grams of fentanyl, enough to kill 10,000 people, is charged with a fourth- or fifth-degree felony. Any of those charges would become misdemeanors under Issue 1.
Phil Riegle, Hancock County prosecutor, said in 2017, 120 people were convicted of fourth- or fifth-degree drug possession charges in Hancock County.
Of those, 38 people were given treatment; 37 were placed on community control sanctions; 12 were sent to prison as their primary sentence; six people had treatment revoked and were given community control sanctions; three had their community control revoked and were given community control; two were given treatment but were then sentenced to prison; and 20 cases are not yet complete.
Municipal court overload?
If Issue 1 passes, current fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession charges would go to Findlay Municipal Court, which handles misdemeanor cases in Hancock County.
That prospect scares Municipal Judges Mark Miller and Alan Hackenberg, who said they could see an increase of 200 cases next year alone.
“So if we next year have to supervise 200-plus more people, that means we don’t have enough staff,” Miller said.
The judges have asked for an additional $300,000 from the city of Findlay for next year to cover the costs if Issue 1 passes.
The proposed amendment says money would be sent to those communities that need it to help with the opiate crisis. But Miller and Hackenberg said they doubt Hancock County would get that money.
“I think it would go to bigger counties,” Hackenberg said.
Miller said he also is worried that Issue 1 could cause more overdoses, in part because being in jail or prison means someone can’t access drugs and overdose, and in part because there would be fewer consequences.
Hancock County Sheriff Mike Heldman believes Issue 1 would cause even worse jail overcrowding.
Even with the rule that people charged with drug possession have to be convicted three times before being sent to jail, he said more people would end up in the Hancock County jail.
“The judges are going to have to give these people some consequence,” he said.
Heldman and Detective Sgt. Jason Seem also worry that Issue 1 could affect enforcement. Seem and Heldman said they would have to look at how effective their drug efforts might be if those sentenced for drug possession aren’t off the streets.
“It would definitely affect our day-to-day operations,” Seem said.
The Hancock County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS), as well as the Ohio ADAMHS board, have issued statements opposing Issue 1.
“It’s not that we don’t believe that nonviolent individuals are better served through treatment, but we don’t think that the way it’s outlined in the amendment is the right way to do it,” said Precia Stuby, executive director of the Hancock County ADAMHS board.
Stuby said while she supports having more treatment available, she does not support having the matter in the Ohio Constitution. The amendment would go into effect without support behind it, Stuby said.
“There’s no infrastructure put in place to address this on day one,” she said.
Most local officials interviewed for this story agreed with Stuby that Issue 1 should instead be a state legislative action, not a constitutional amendment, because it is difficult to make changes in a constitutional amendment.
Proponents of the amendment say the issue will help push people into treatment. Policy Matters Ohio, a nonpartisan research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus, is one of a handful of statewide nonpartisan groups that have come out in favor of Issue 1.
“If the way we were doing things in Ohio was working, we wouldn’t have one of the highest drug overdose rates in the country,” said Caitlin Johnson, a spokesperson for Policy Matters Ohio.
Issue 1 is a good way to reduce prison sentencing around Ohio, Johnson said, and would help those who would otherwise be convicted of a felony to find jobs and be productive members of society.
Policy Matters Ohio also believes Ohio will save money under this plan, Johnson said.
Other supporters of State Issue 1 include the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio branch of the ACLU, and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, among others.
Opponents include the Buckeye Sheriff’s Association, the Ohio Chief Probation Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Christian Alliance.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has issued a strong statement against Issue 1.
In the Ohio 83rd District race for state representative, Jon Cross, the Republican candidate, opposes it.
“It’s black and white to me, it’s not going to be good for our economy, it’s not going to be good for our state,” Cross said.
Mary Harshfield, the Democratic candidate, said she was for the proposed amendment.
“It does address a serious problem,” Harshfield said. “We have to finally do something.”
Issue 1 has become an issue in the governor’s race, as well.
Mike DeWine, current Ohio attorney general and the Republican candidate for governor, is opposed to Issue 1, but supports expanding Ohio’s treatment capacity and expanding drug courts, according to his campaign.
Richard Cordray, the Democratic candidate for governor, supports Issue 1. Campaign spokesman Charlie Andrews said Cordray plans to work with law enforcement to put drug traffickers in jail, while getting treatment for drug addicts.