Proponents of state Issue 1 say the proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution would release low-level drug offenders from the state’s severely over-crowded prisons and move them into the treatment programs they desperately need. Furthermore, it would direct millions of dollars now spent on incarcerations and law enforcement activity into rehabilitation services.
The latter point was probably the most important to proponents gathered Tuesday at the 14th Street Community Center for a Town Hall session on issue put together by Faith in Public Life, a national organization of clergy and faith leaders who locally are supporting Issue 1.
The main argument put forth Tuesday seemed to be incarceration does not work, does not help cure addicts of their addictions but instead perpetuates cycles of addiction.
A member of Faith in Public Life, Portsmouth’s Joshua Swanson was the moderator for Tuesday night’s discussion and is a local activist supporting Issue 1. According Swanson, some highlights of the amendment include switching fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession charges to misdemeanors, providing there was no evidence of drug trafficking or intent to sell. Further, the changes would be made retroactive, meaning persons currently serving time for drug felonies could have their sentences reduced and even be released from prison.
On Tuesday, Swanson and others argued reducing charges from felonies to misdemeanors would remove barriers for those convicted who later have problems gaining employment, housing and so on because of the felony on their record.
“We’re coming off 40 to 50 years of a drug war that has not served our country well,” Swanson said, once again arguing for treatment over incarceration.
“Drug treatment helped me recover my life and my relationship with my kids,” said Portsmouth resident Denice Harding in materials distributed Tuesday. “Voting yes on Issue 1 will help more mothers like me. People are praying for health.”
Swanson said there are some 50,000 people sitting in Ohio’s prisons, prisons designed for a far smaller population. Of those prisoners, up to 23 percent are behind bars for some sort of probation violation, such as failing a drug test. Swanson termed prison overcrowding a public safety issue which needs addressing.
One of six panel members who spoke in favor of Issue 1, Fr. Steve Cuff, rector of Portsmouth’s All Saints Episcopal Church, said justice consists of punishment but also restoration or rehabilitation of the offender. He argued the current criminal justice system is heavily weighted towards the punishment end of that spectrum.
Now a licensed rehabilitation counselor, Portsmouth’s Rhonda Dunlap runs a faith-based recovery program Rejoicing in Recovery at Cornerstone Methodist Church. She said in 1997 she was a wife and music teacher in the local public school system. That year, Dunlap added she came home with the baby and a bottle of painkillers. Readers probably can predict the rest of her story. Dunlap commented she was in and out of jail multiple times. “Treatment didn’t come up,” she said.
Eventually, Dunlap did find her way to treatment and said she reported being clean since 2005. She was insistent jail does not help addicts overcome their addictions.
“People need treatment not incarceration,” said David Malone, a former Portsmouth mayor now pastor of Kingdom Builders Church. “We must begin to focus on healing.”
Another speaker Tuesday was Lisa Roberts, a registered nurse at the Portsmouth City Health Department and someone who is well-known locally as being on the front lines of the local drug addiction problem. Robert said there is some good news recently in that the numbers of juveniles trying hard drugs has fallen. But she also noted Scioto County was the first county in the country to declare a public health emergency over opiate addiction. Now, of course, the opiate problem has been called a national public health emergency. Despite some improvements, Ohio still ranks as one of the top two or three states in the country in terms of overdose deaths.
As most know, the painkiller known as Fentanyl is much in the news these days. Roberts said the use of Fentanyl, or Fentanyl-like substances -and related overdoses – skyrocketed locally and nationally in the last two or three years. Echoing some comments made by other panelists, Roberts was insistent addiction is a disease requiring treatment, not jail. As have other local addiction experts in the past, Roberts talked about the effectiveness of prescription treatments for addiction problems. However, she also noted there is some resistance and stigma connected with drug treatment for drug problems.
For example, Robert said if you are a diabetic and go to jail, the state will supply you with insulin. If you are an addict and go to jail, they will not supply you any related medications. She specifically noted the Ohio prison system does not offer addiction treatment.
“Jail does not work,” panelist Michael Parker said flatly. Parker is a peer counselor at the Counseling Center in Portsmouth. “Jail perpetuates jail,” he added, after recounting his own struggles with addiction. He stated jail did him no good whatsoever but simply exposed him to other criminals.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH., probably would disagree.
“I’ve been a strong proponent of prison and sentencing reform, but I have serious concerns that Issue 1 goes too far and could reverse the progress we are making in combating the opioid epidemic,” Portman said in a prepared statement to the Daily Times. “As I travel the state, law enforcement, addiction treatment advocates, and drug courts all tell me that the threat of prison is a strong incentive in getting addicts into treatment.”
Speaking the day after the Town Hall event, Swanson said most of the opposition to the constitutional amendment is coming from law enforcement. Incumbent Scioto County Prosecutor Shane Tieman has said he is “100 percent” opposed to the issue. His challenger in the November election, Democrat Rachel Daehler attended the Tuesday night forum. She said there is a lot to like about what Issue 1 is intended to accomplish. But in the end, she said she is going to stick with her opposition to the question.
According to Daehler, one major problem is the essential decriminalization of fentanyl which is stronger and deadlier than heroin. Most readers have probably seen TV commercials maintaining the state amendment would decriminalize enough of the drug to kill the population of small cities.
Both Daehler and Tieman also don’t like the idea of Issue 1 being a state constitutional amendment. Tieman especially noted if the approach proved ineffective, another state amendment would be needed to revoke the new rules and a state constitutional amendment is not something easily undertaken. Daehler completely agreed.
For his part, Swanson termed law enforcement objections “scare tactics.” On Tuesday night and later he talked about efforts to lower the amounts of fentanyl which can be possessed before trafficking charges take effect. Issue 1 specifically does not decriminalize trafficking or possession with intent to sell.
Tieman also worries Ohio could become a haven for drug traffickers who would begin to realize that if busted here, they would only face misdemeanor charges as opposed to felony charges in their own states. Swanson argued there is no way to accurately and unequivocally predict any unintended consequences of state Issue 1.