Ohio Senate president says action will come quick, before the end of the year.
After voters statewide rejected Issue 1 this week, state lawmakers are ready to move forward on criminal justice reforms, legislative leaders said Thursday.
Ohio’s “big three” political leaders — Senate President Larry Obhof, House Speaker Ryan Smith, and Gov.-elect Mike DeWine — each applauded the failure of State Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have changed criminal sentences. Voters rejected it 36.6 percent to 63.4 percent, according to unofficial results.
Judges and elected Republicans largely opposed Issue 1, saying it was a flawed proposal that didn’t belong in the Ohio Constitution.
Obhof, R-Medina, said Thursday he will introduce a bill in the upcoming weeks that calls for reducing low-level drug felony offenses to misdemeanors; install a presumption for probation over prison if the offender agrees to drug treatment; allow people currently incarcerated for certain drug crimes to petition the court to be re-sentenced.
The bill will be based on a proposal developed by Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat. The two ran against one another in 2016.
Obhof wants to take quick action on the bill, before Gov. John Kasich leaves office and the current legislative session ends. However, if it doesn’t get through by the end of the year, he plans to bring it back next year.
DeWine said criminal justice reform would be a priority for his administration, which starts in January, but he did not provide details of how that might take shape.
For the past year, policy leaders have been doing a deep dive into Ohio's interconnected criminal justice issues: prison overcrowding, the opiate crisis, mental health treatment, falling crime rates, rising murder and assault rates, recidivism rates and more. A final report will make recommendations for lawmakers to consider in 2019.
Nearly 60 percent of all felony sentences in Ohio are for drug and property crimes, according to the Council of State Governments analysis of Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification data.
And while Ohio's recidivism rate — those returning to prison within three years of release — is lower than the national rate, it crept up 1.5 percentage points to 30.73 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
“That concerns me but it’s good that we’re still substantially better than the national average. I still think that our prison population is too high,” Obhof said.
Obhof and Smith chafed at the assertion that the Ohio Legislature has failed to address criminal justice reforms. In 2011, Ohio adopted sweeping reforms to its criminal sentencing practices and in 2012, it reduced “collateral sanctions” that are imposed after conviction and can block people from obtaining professional licenses.
In the past two years, Ohio made more changes to criminal sentencing laws and expanded programs that allow offenders to side step prison time if they go to drug treatment.
“We’ve passed a large number of sentencing reforms over the past five years. They’ve all been bipartisan,” Obhof said.
New Criminal Justice Reform Bill Highlights
— Reduce most felony 5 and felony 4 drug possession offenses to misdemeanor violations where there will be a presumption in favor of probation if an offender agrees to treatment.
— Allow people currently in prison or on probation for newly reclassified F4 and F5 offenses to petition the court for a reclassification of their offense to a misdemeanor with the appropriate reduction in sentence.
— Allow people to seal their criminal records related to F4 and F5 drug possession convictions.
— Create a presumption against jail time for technical probation violations, but give judges discretion to order treatment or incarceration if the violation is the commission of a new offense or when there are repeated violations. Generally, a relapse into addiction will not mean prison time.
— For the remaining felony drug possession offenses, eliminate all mandatory drug sentences except for major drug offender convictions and possession of fentanyl.
Laura Bischoff is our Columbus bureau reporter and covers politics and state government. She keeps a close eye on elected leaders, public employees and taxpayer money. Bischoff tries to write stories that inform voters, hold leaders accountable and strengthen democracy.