New legislation to keep traffickers out of prison

By Nikki Blankenship -

Scioto County Commissioner Bryan Davis praised State Auditor Dave Yost for his strong stance against Targeted Communities Alternatives to Prison (TCAP), a Senate bill that Yost says could prevent judges from sending some heroin dealers to prison.

TCAP will deal specifically with felony five offenses. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) reported that in 2016, approximately 8,300 of the nearly 20,000 individuals committed to prison in Ohio were sent to serve one year or less. An estimated 4,100 of those inmates were incarcerated for felony five offenses, which are the the lowest felony offenses.

The bill targets non-violent felony five offenders, who make up an estimated 3,400 of the felony five commitments in the State.

TCAP aims to reduce the growing prison population by sending these offenders (most commonly those with drug charges) to community-based treatment programs instead of jail. Offenders would have to be committed for less than 12 months for crimes that are non-violent, non-sex and non-mandatory felony five and would have to have a criminal history that does not include prior violent or sexual felony offenses.

“The idea itself may have some value: it looks to take relatively low-level, non-violent offenders out of the prison system in favor of local sanctions,” Yost stated in a letter to the Senate. “In its original form, the administration estimated it would save about $20 million a year, although several amendments to cure its newly discovered problems greatly diminish TCAP’s sweep and call into serious question the savings estimate.”

Though he questioned the cost savings of the bill, Yost also questioned its function in society.

“TCAP operates by creating a class of fifth degree felonies for which a judge may not sentence the offender to prison – even if the offender fails multiple times at the terms of his community control,” Yost stated. “The bill excepts offenses of violence, already defined by statute, sex offenses in Chapter 2907, and individuals with multiple offenses totaling a sentence in excess of 12 months. That leaves a variety of offenses for which prison should at the very least be a judicial option. Among them is aggravated trafficking in heroin in fewer than 10 unit doses.”

It is the impact on these particular offenders that was concerning to Yost as opposed to offenders with possession.

“Street level heroin dealers generally keep a gram or less of the drug on their person,within that 10-unit dose level,” Yost said. “After selling out of their product, they re-up from a stash, thus limiting their potential liability if arrested. My time as a prosecutor taught me these street-level heroin dealers are the entry point to work up the distribution chain. It is the threat of prison that provides the heroin dealer motivation to cooperate with state authorities. To get the ‘big fish’ you’ve got to get the little ones – and TCAP takes away that tool in the fight against the opiate epidemic. I simply cannot believe that any official intends to keep heroin dealers out of prison during the current opiate crisis. It appears this is an unintended consequence of a complex idea that has not had enough time to be properly considered.”

Yost continued by stating that criminal justice reform is a necessary discussion, but the current bill is not the solution.

According to Davis, TCAP may be hitting Scioto County sooner rather than later.

“My understanding is that they are going to force the top 10 largest counties to do it period,” Davis stated.

County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn questioned if largest was based on population or incarceration, to which Davis responded that he was not sure, stating that the Senate has only been releasing bullet points and not the bill in its entirety. He was under the assumption it was largest by incarceration.

Kuhn stated that if incarceration is the determining factor, Scioto County may be within the top 10.

“We have been in the past,” he confirmed.

With the offenders being diverted to community programs, more will spend longer time in the County Jal.

“It’s going to cost the County a lot more money, and our jail is already full,” Davis stated.

He added that the bill has to be ready for passage by the end of the month.

“It’s all going to come to a head in the next 30 days,” he stated. “We just smile and wait and work the phones. Hopefully, things will go our way. And, if they don’t’, we’ll adjust.”

Editor’s note: This is the 12th story in a 16 story series on the opiate epidemic.

By Nikki Blankenship

Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.

Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.