Guest column/Community leaders united against Issue 1
On Nov. 6, the voters in Jefferson County and across the state will face an important issue that will affect not only our response to the current opiate epidemic, but will have long-term detrimental effects on our legal system and on the places we call home.
The importance of this issue cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the unanimous position of law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and commissioners. We have grave concerns about the effect of this constitutional amendment and we cannot stress enough how ineffective Issue 1 would be in the battle against the opioid epidemic.
First, a constitutional amendment is very difficult to modify, and modification will be necessary to respond to our state’s and communities’ ever changing needs. A constitutional amendment is, for all practical purposes, carved in stone. A constitutional amendment is not the appropriate legal mechanism to address the opiate issue or any other issue relating to our criminal justice system.
Second, those in favor of Issue 1 would have the public believe that treatment is not being implemented in our communities. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as evidenced by the Jefferson County Drug Court programs, not only in juvenile court as well as all of county courts and Steubenville Municipal Court, but at the highest level, in our common pleas courts as well. More than 50 percent of those individuals currently in the Jefferson County Drug Court Program are at the F5 level for possession of drugs.
The drug court participants have access to treatment that most in our community cannot afford even with insurance. Drug Court participants have an entire team devoted to their success with the goal of returning them to the community as law abiding citizens with no felony record and the ability to work, pay taxes and take care of their families. Issue 1 would destroy our drug court programs.
Third, minimizing drug possession crimes, such as possession of Fentanyl, takes our approach to handling the opiate crisis in the wrong direction. The misdemeanor amount of Fentanyl that would be permitted under Issue 1 is sufficient to kill 10,000 people. Furthermore, this small amount could be used as a chemical weapon on a wide-scale basis. We have seen the dangers of Fentanyl. It has killed our first responders, law enforcement officers and those unintended victims who have come into contact with it. This proposed amendment would destroy our ability to effectively punish people who possess lethal amounts of Fentanyl.
Issue 1 would not address the prison population. Currently, there are approximately 50,000 individuals incarcerated in our prisons. Only an estimated 2,600 of those individuals are there for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies (which are the lowest level felonies.)
Currently, the F4 and F5 offenders who are in prison are those who have repeatedly not followed treatment plans, have re-offended, committed additional crimes or repeatedly violated the terms of their probation and treatment plan. Issue 1 would place those individuals back on our streets and leave our justice system unable to protect the many law-abiding people who live here.
Issue 1 will not make Ohio safer. In fact, it will remove all ability for law enforcement and the court system to deal with this issue in any meaningful way. The current judicial and legal system provides incentive for those who otherwise would not seek or comply with treatment plans.
The carrot-and-stick approach is effective. Rarely do those with addiction voluntarily seek meaningful treatment. As the Ohio State Coroner’s Association has stated, our jails will be empty, but our morgues will be filled. Minor crimes and low-risk offenders are already mandated to participate in drug treatment with a series of graduated responses to motivate compliance with treatment programs. Issue 1 would again remove all motivation for treatment. It is not an exaggeration to state that Ohio streets would become even more flooded with deadly drugs. Drug offenders from nearby states, such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, will seek out our communities because penalties here will be lower than many, if not all, other states.
The most recent fiscal study done for this proposed constitutional amendment concludes that the numbers just don’t add up. It will not put more money into treatment. The anticipated funds would be insufficient to be applied to state-administered rehabilitation programs and victims of crime funds.
Issue 1 is not limited to drugs of abuse like Fentanyl and heroin — even someone possessing large quantities of the “date-rape” drugs would be protected and could not go to jail. The anticipated Ohio voters are being misled into believing that this proposed constitutional amendment would provide help to addicts and help with prison overpopulation. It will do neither.
We urge you to vote no on Issue 1.
(This column has been signed by Jefferson County Common Pleas Judges Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr., Michelle G. Miller and Joseph Corabi; Jefferson County Municipal and County Court Judges John Mascio Jr., Michael C. Bednar, Lisa Ferguson and David J. Scarpone; Magistrate Frank Noble Jr.; Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane M. Hanlin; Jefferson County Commissioners Thomas Graham, Dave Maple and Tom Gentile; Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla; Jefferson County Drug Task Force Detective Jason Hanlin; Wells Township Capt. Sean C. Norman; Steubenville City Manager James Mavromatis; and Tricia Maple-Damewood, president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.)