Ohio makes big changes on criminal justice changes

Advocates for criminal justice reforms scored multiple wins in the closing weeks of 2020 that they say will give thousands of Ohioans a second chance.

Gov. Mike DeWine signed half a dozen bills into laws that will take effect later this year. The potential impacts are sweeping.

Incarcerated pregnant women will no longer be shackled to hospital beds as they deliver their babies. Poor people will be able to perform community service as a way to get their driver’s licenses back instead of paying huge fees. Ohioans who made mistakes will have an easier time getting professional licenses to advance their careers. People suffering from serious mental illnesses at the time of the crime will not be executed. Teens who commit terrible crimes will serve their time but will still have the hope of making parole someday.

And House Bill 1 will allow Ohioans in the throes of addiction to get drug treatment instead of a criminal record.

DeWine called House Bill 1 the most significant among the recent criminal justice reforms.

“There is a broad consensus in this country that people who commit crimes — non-violent offenses — because of the fact that they’re an addict, we all want to see them succeed. We want them to get clean, stay clean and be good members of society,” said DeWine, a former Greene County prosecutor and state attorney general. “There is a broad consensus that if they can get clean and on a pathway, we don’t want to tag them with a felony conviction. So this makes sense.”



Kevin Werner of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center called it “remarkable” that so many criminal justice reform bills cleared the Ohio General Assembly in the closing weeks of 2020.

Most of these bills will go into effect in late March or early April.

HB1 broadens the use of intervention in lieu of conviction programs that allow people facing certain criminal charges to avoid conviction if they complete drug or alcohol treatment programs; provides a quicker path to sealing conviction records for thousands of Ohioans; prohibits the shackling of pregnant prisoners; and reduces incarceration as a result of technical violations of probation.

State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, who sponsored HB1, said, “The intent is to help them get back up on their feet and be productive citizens.”

Credit: FILE

Credit: FILE

Support for HB1 came from the right and left — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, ACLU of Ohio, the conservative Buckeye Institute, public defenders and prosecutors.

Other bills signed into law by DeWine will reduce the “collateral sanctions” — additional punishments that were popular with tough-on-crime lawmakers over the past several decades. Such sanctions made it more difficult to get professional licensing, housing, student financial aid, driver’s licenses and more.

“Again, we have a broad consensus that we shouldn’t be having those. Once a person has served their time or served their probation, probably they should be able to move on with their lives,” DeWine said.

State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, sponsored House Bill 263, which DeWine signed. Dubbed the Fresh Start Act, it’ll remove barriers to occupational licenses for people with criminal records.

“Nearly one in five Ohioans needs an occupational license to do their job,” Koehler said. “The Fresh Start Act is a comprehensive occupational licensing and criminal justice reform proposal that will assist Ohioans who have paid their debt to society and deserve more than to be treated as second-class citizens for the rest of their lives.”

Currently, professional licensing boards are allowed to set character requirements and to deny licenses due to any criminal conviction, regardless of how much time has passed.

Under the new law, licensing boards won’t be allowed to consider nonviolent, nonsexual offenses that occurred more than five years ago or 10 years for fiduciary licenses, and boards will be required to spell out which convictions would disqualify someone from obtaining a license — a provision that will eliminate “blanket bans.”

DeWine also signed Senate Bill 68, which will provide a way for people who can’t pay driver license reinstatement fees to perform community service instead.

Supporters of the new law say it’ll help people avoid falling into the “BMV cycle of death” where their license is suspended and they have to choose between driving without a license to their jobs or lose their employment and make their financial situations worse. Driving without a license can result in more fines.

The Ohio BMV reported that 1.1 million Ohioans had suspended drivers licenses in 2017. Restoration of full driving privileges requires payment of a reinstatement fee that can balloon into the hundreds or thousands of dollars for the multiple suspensions a person can accumulate under Ohio law.

Advocates for juvenile justice reforms applauded passage of Senate Bill 256, which sets timelines for parole eligibility for juvenile offenders who are serving extended prison sentences and abolishes life without parole sentences for offenders who were under 18 at the time of the crime.

The Ohio Public Defender’s Office testified that Ohio law needed to be changed to comply with state and federal court rulings.

Former state senator Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, sponsor of the bill, said in testimony that youths’ brains aren’t fully developed until age 25 and youthful offenders have a unique opportunity for rehabilitation. “It is not fair to punish a child in the same way as an adult, because a child is still developmentally immature,” she said.

The law change is expected to initially make 50 to 60 current prisoners eligible for parole consideration.

Additional reform efforts in 2021 will likely focus on Ohio’s cash bail system, the death penalty, knocking down the number of collateral sanctions people face when they’re convicted, holding the Ohio Parole Board accountable and pushing for criminal drug sentencing changes, said Werner of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

Also, while several criminal justice bills made it across the finish line, a comprehensive package of changes in Senate Bill 3 failed to win final approval. SB3 called for reducing certain felony drug offenses to misdemeanors.

Shakyra Diaz, state director of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which lobbied for SB3, said Ohio families still need solutions to the addiction crisis and the alliance will continue to work with lawmakers.

“Giving felony convictions to Ohioans with addictions only makes the problem worse, and inaction is not an option as more families lose loved ones to addiction and overdoses because they needlessly cycle through the criminal justice system without getting treatment,” Diaz said.

Gov. Mike DeWine recently signed several criminal justice reform bills into Ohio law.

  • House Bill 1: Expands the use of drug treatment programs in lieu of criminal conviction; speeds up and expands the path to sealing criminal records; prohibits the shackling of pregnant inmates.
  • House Bill 136: Prohibits the death penalty for offenders who suffered from certain serious mental illnesses at the time of the crime.
  • House Bill 263: Lessens barriers to getting occupational licenses for those who have criminal records.
  • Senate Bill 68: Allows courts to let people who can’t afford to pay driver license reinstatement fees to perform community service instead.
  • Senate Bill 256: Prohibits sentencing people who were under 18 to life in prison without the possibility for parole and allows some current inmates to be eligible for parole after 18, 25 or 30 years, depending on the offense.

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