Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Ohio is poised to make changes to state's criminal justice system

 With Election Day now behind us, Ohio’s legislature enters its "lame-duck" period. These several weeks before the end of our two-year legislative session are typically extremely busy and chaotic as lawmakers rush to pass bills before the clock expires, writes Gary Daniels of Ohio's ACLU in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

It is a time of year that causes much heartburn at the Statehouse. Nobody likes it, including legislators. What’s different this time around? Ohio is poised to make a series of welcome changes to its criminal legal system via a handful of bipartisan, broadly supported bills.

Senate Bill 3 is the most notable. At its core, SB 3 reduces some current felony-level drug possession penalties to misdemeanors. The design is to expand access to Ohio’s drug courts and further steer people towards treatment. For the past seven years, drug possession is the number one reason people enter Ohio’s overcrowded prisons. Over half go for the lowest level (fifth degree) felony offense.

Our state’s War On Drugs comes at great cost to people across Ohio, especially to Black and brown families, and other communities of color. Not to mention the enormous burden on Ohio, plus its taxpayers. SB 3 is further progress toward reversing decades-long adherence to failed policies and laws.

House Bill 1 is less impactful than SB 3 but is still positive change. HB 1 further expands Ohio’s practice of providing alternatives to jail and prison for those (not all) who commit drug crimes or other offenses because of their drug addiction. Again, with the idea of providing treatment instead of prison cells. HB 1 also expands the sealing of criminal records so barriers are reduced for those who later seek housing, employment, professional licensing, and education. The less barriers faced the more likely people deserving of a second chance find success. Ohio is wise to build upon its past and current efforts in this regard.

Along these lines, House Bill 263 removes many of the automatic and discretionary disqualifications for those with criminal records who apply for professional licenses. Currently, many people find themselves out of various jobs and entire careers because of their past. Far too often, the restrictions have no relationship to the past conviction and the license sought. Ohio government should be encouraging and facilitating employment, not standing in the way. HB 263 strikes a much better and more productive balance.

Senate Bill 256 updates Ohio law to comply with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding life without parole sentences for juveniles. This bill allows an opportunity for, but not mandatory, parole for those who have demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation during their incarceration. It is recognition young brains are not yet fully developed, which may and does effect decision-making and impulse control.

House Bill 136 spares those with a handful of specific, severe mental illnesses at the time of the crime from receiving the death penalty. In the near future, Ohio is (hopefully) poised to entirely eliminate capital punishment with a growing number of opponents across the political and ideological spectrum joining together to end it. Until then, HB 136 represents a growing trend acknowledging death is not appropriate for those rare circumstances when uncontrollable behavior leads to tragedy.

None of these bills are perfect. Ohioans across the state need more relief with less delay to reverse a long history of mass incarceration with many failures. Black Ohioans especially have and continue to suffer from the criminal legal system’s across the board unequal, systemically racist application against them.

Even with some flaws, these bipartisan, widely supported bills collectively represent more positive movement than we have seen at the Statehouse in decades. But that only counts if they cross the finish line. All five of these bills have advanced far enough through the legislative process to cross the finish line before 2020 ends.

When they do, it should be considered a continuation, not end, to the Ohio General Assembly’s work on these issues. Ohio has thrown a lot of people in prison and saddled many more with felony records effecting families, neighborhoods and the entire state across generations. But, this lame-duck period, legislators are well-poised to bring common sense, fiscal responsibility and increased fairness to their constituents. 

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