The Ohio Senate has passed what supporters call a critical bill to address criminal justice reform and overcrowded prisons. The legislation lowers the penalty for many drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.
The bill, SB3, was backed by every Democrat and most Republicans. It reduces penalties for low-level, non-violent drug possession offenses and allows judges to dismiss cases if a defendant completes rehabilitation.
State Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) says this bill fixes injustices in Ohio's drug laws.
"That gives so many people a chance where they don't have to deal with a life sentence of a felony conviction that hangs over their head," Thomas says.
The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association opposes the bill, saying the possibility of a felony conviction would incentivize treatment.
"Addiction to drugs is a powerful thing. The incentive to break that addiction must be equally or more powerful. The possibility of a felony conviction with all of its consequences must be a possibility as part of that incentive. Every drug court judge and prosecutor will tell you the same thing," said Vic Vigluicci, Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association president and Portage County prosecuting attorney, in a May 2019 written testimony. "Judges need the discretion and flexibility to fashion the appropriate penalty to incentivize recovery, up to and including prison and the collateral consequences of felony conviction."
Criminal justice reform advocates say SB3 puts Ohio in a better position to address addiction, improve public safety, and reduce prison overcrowding.
"Needlessly giving people felony convictions for minor drug possession when they have an addiction is proven by research to be counterproductive for their recovery and public safety," says Shakyra Diaz, Ohio director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice. "It leads to wasteful prison spending, drains our economy by senselessly excluding people from the workforce due to a felony conviction, and undermines people’s recovery from addiction. Ohio Senate leaders have thoughtfully advanced this smart step forward for Ohio that can save lives, improve public health, and make our state safer.”
The measure now heads to the Ohio House.