The Ohio General Assembly is finally moving closer to passing long-sought legislation to slow the pipeline of minor drug offenders into Ohio prisons.
Whether passage of Senate Bill 3 alone will do what many advocates have clamored for is another question.
With the legislation pending for more than a year, it is surprising how long it has taken lawmakers to get even this close to enacting the bipartisan criminal justice reform sought by diverse interests.
SB3, a bill with strong backing from Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, calls for reclassifying low-level felony drug charges to misdemeanors, eliminating potential prison sentences for convictions of small amounts of prohibited substances.
Obhof, a Medina Republican, likes that the bill would allow law enforcement to separate people who are drug dealers from those who are addicted drug users, with harsher penalties for the distributors.
Other early supporters were Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat. That the two worked closely with state senators on drafting the bill and advocated for its passage underscores the bill’s bipartisan nature.
In a legislature that is known more for partisan division than compromise, SB3 is a rare measure with primary sponsors from different parties — Sen. John Ecklund, a Republican from Geauga County, and Sen. Sean O’Brien, a Democrat from Trumbull County.
The intent of the bill is similar to part of what was proposed — and soundly defeated by Ohio voters — in 2018 when State Issue 1 was on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment.
The Dispatch supports the concept of reducing criminal penalties for personal drug use and possession to help point persons with addiction toward treatment rather than into overcrowded prisons. And reforming drug sentencing laws via legislation is much preferred to doing it as a constitutional amendment; that was a major drawback of the ballot issue two years ago.
An advantage of the approach in SB3, as touted by Klein when the bill was introduced, is that drug users who need to overcome addictions can get help without being saddled with a felony conviction, a penalty of long-term consequences that can prohibit efforts to attain or maintain sustainable employment. “It’s like we are asking folks to pull themselves up by the bootstraps but we’ve taken away their boots,” Klein argued in support of the bill.
The Dispatch encourages the Ohio House of Representatives to pass SB3.
We also urge the Senate to likewise favorably consider House Bill 1, a drug-sentencing reform measure that the House passed more than a year ago and which has received just four hearings in the Senate — far short of the 14 hearings the Senate granted its preferred route.
HB1 is also a bipartisan bill; primary sponsors are Rep. Phil Plummer, a Dayton Republican, and Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, a Democrat from Toledo.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has long preferred and remains an advocate for HB1 as a more effective tool for the state’s specialized drug courts that hold prison in abeyance to encourage drug treatment compliance. HB1 also would help ex-offenders seal criminal records after meeting court requirements, an incentive for rehabilitation success.
The ACLU of Ohio earlier this year said “reform of our criminal justice system should never be limited to one bill.”