There is one statewide issue on the ballot in this November’s election. Issue 1 proposes to reduce prison overcrowding in Ohio by reducing the sentences of non-violent, low-level drug offenders. Opponents argue, among other things, that it would make it harder to prosecute drug traffickers and take away power from judges to sentence or seek rehab where appropriate.
Now, the state budget office has said if it passes, it will cost local communities more money.
The state budget office is required to analyze the financial impact of statewide ballot issues. And it said the constitutional amendment on drug treatment and criminal sentencing known as Issue 1 would shift costs to local governments in two ways.
The first is, because former felony offenders could no longer be put behind bars, local governments would have to come up with new sentencing options. Secondly, as thousands of people who were once charged with felony drug crimes get reclassified to misdemeanor offenses, the cases will shift from county common pleas courts to local municipal courts, adding costs to those smaller courts.
One of the backers of Issue 1, Dennis Willard, thinks the projections, which come from the Kasich administration’s budget office, are wrong.
“This is a flawed policy paper prepared for career politicians who continue to dig their heads deeper and deeper into the sand as the opioid epidemic claims, on average, 14 lives a day in Ohio," he said. "This state is second in the nation only to West Virginia for overdose deaths.”
Willard said other reports show $100 million could be diverted directly from state prisons and put into treatment in local communities.
But Suzanne Delaney with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, a group that opposes Issue 1, said there are short and long term problems with it.
“The first concern we have deals with the retroactive application provision in the amendment that requires courts to resentence or release individuals convicted of an offense of possessing or using drugs and there is no funding identified to pay for that provision. The longer term and more troubling concern is that it would create an unfunded mandate,” she said.
Requirements from the state with no money attached also worry Kent Scarrett with the Ohio Municipal League, another organization that opposes Issue 1.
“Cities have been challenged financially for a number of years with cuts to the local government fund, the elimination of the Ohio estate tax. Our revenues are down. State support has been down financially and now with the different issues included in Issue 1, there’s great concern that there will be some unfunded mandates in the application of the changes that are proposed in Issue 1,” he said.
The 30 members of the Ohio Mayors’ Alliance haven’t taken a stance on the issue. The group’s director, Keary McCarthy, said mayors are divided on where they stand on it, so the group won’t support or oppose it. But he said if it fails, the group would likely support a bipartisan legislative proposal like the one being brought forward by Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat, and Republican Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.
“The biggest, most attractive piece is you are bringing law enforcement and people who deal with prosecuting drug crimes to the table early. They are from both sides of the aisle. They are in one of the largest regions of the state. They understand the complexity of the challenge,” McCarthy said.
But one challenge with that plan is it would require the legislature to put it in action. And while this issue of preferring treatment over incarceration has been debated for years, lawmakers have not come up with legislation to address it. And that is why backers of Issue 1 say they brought this proposed constitutional amendment to the ballot in the first place.