A look at Issue 1: An Amendment to Reduce Penalties for Crimes of Obtaining, Possessing, and Using Illegal Drugs

Concern about overcrowding in Ohio’s prisons from non-violent drug offenders has led a group to propose a ballot initiated constitutional amendment. Backed by a coalition of civic, law enforcement, faith and business leaders, the initiative will appear on the ballot as Ohio Issue 1 this November.  The initiative’s sponsors were able to secure the necessary 305,591 signatures from registered Ohio voters for the amendment to appear on the ballot.

If adopted, Issue 1 would reform Ohio’s criminal justice system in three major ways.  It would reclassify fourth and fifth degree felony drug possession and use charges to first degree misdemeanors.  Nonviolent drug charges would carry a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. The changes would not apply to drug traffickers, who will continue to be sentenced under felony charges.  The amendment will also be retroactive, meaning offenders currently in prison for nonviolent possession and use offenses could potentially see their sentences reduced, or be released.

23 percent of individuals in Ohio’s prison system are there for probation violations. The amendment would also prohibit sending individuals on probation to prison for noncriminal probation violations. Supporters of the amendment hope these changes will safely and significantly reduce Ohio’s prison population.

Issue 1 would require any savings from a reduced prison population to be redirected towards local drug treatment and support programs.  Supporters of Issue 1 emphasize that this part of the amendment will help combat the opioid epidemic. While sentencing reform is a major part of the amendment, supporters hope the increased funding to community rehabilitation programs will provide a long-term impact.  By supporting local programs for youths and adults, Issue 1 would help shift the burden of dealing with addiction from the state prison system to individual communities.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray has said he favors the ballot initiative.  Cordray stated he believes it will save Ohio taxpayers money by reducing prison populations and focusing on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.  Republican gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Mike DeWine has not yet stated a position on the initiative.  While organizers boast of bipartisan support,  some opponents, including former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, say the issue is best dealt with by the General Assembly, rather than an amendment to the constitution.

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