Guest column/Ohio must move forward on sentencing reform
Ohio has become ground zero in our national opioid epidemic. In September, in just one county, a staggering 10 people died in the span of 26 hours from drug overdoses.
Until recently, Ohio’s response to the crisis consisted mostly of handing out lengthy prison sentences to both dealers and users.
It’s why some of the state’s jails and prisons are at or near capacity, and why overdoses are still climbing.
As someone who spent 21 years in prison for drug trafficking convictions, this backdrop is a painful reminder of my past. But more importantly, it helps explain why I am more convinced than ever that incarceration alone is a poor substitute for rehabilitation.
And I am not alone. Ohio lawmakers recently introduced bipartisan legislation that would allow treatment — rather than incarceration — to those convicted of certain drug-related offenses. In practice, it would mean reclassifying some low-level drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, while allowing prosecutors to focus their attention on incarcerating those who truly pose a threat to themselves and others which is a win for public safety.
And by not incarcerating people that would be better served outside of prison, we can limit the state’s prison population that can cost an average of $30,000 a year.
There are other reasons why this change makes sense. As a former prisoner, I know first-hand how difficult it is to reintegrate back into society with a felony conviction on your record. Prospective employers and landlords shun those with a felony conviction, which is why the formerly incarcerated often find themselves returning to a life of crime. It also helps explain why nearly 70 percent of prisoners are re-arrested within three years of being released.
My personal struggles drive my passion for improving Ohio’s criminal justice system. After being honorably discharged from the Army, I fell in with the wrong crowd and began getting into trouble. By the time I turned 30, a string of bad decisions had finally caught up with me, and I soon found myself staring at a 35-year prison sentence.
My story could have easily ended here. Instead, God had bigger plans for me.
In 2016, I finally saw the light of day as a free man and committed myself to staying on the right side of the law. I found work as a courier-driver, volunteered my time on the weekends at a food pantry and become involved in my local church. And then, after a year and a half of freedom and just as I thought things were going my way, I received a call from my public defenders that had helped me get released. On the call that I received while on my way to a wedding, my public defenders told me that I would have to return to prison.
I was devastated, but I refused to be bitter or angry. I trusted in my Lord that things would eventually sort themselves out.
My story eventually caught the attention of many who spoke favorably on my behalf. But it took an act of Congress to secure my freedom.
Last December, the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation which increased funding for treatment and retroactively dealt with crack-to-cocaine ratio disparity that triggered certain mandatory minimums, was signed into law.
Because of this milestone, my sentence was reduced based on a motion before the federal magistrate.
Now that I am free, I am working with others — including the folks at Americans for Prosperity-Ohio — to improve our criminal justice system.
But my story is the exception, not the norm.
There are a lot of fine men and women — including those in the Ohio criminal corrections system — who are taking steps to turn their lives around. They are taking classes, finding faith in a higher power and learning skills that will help them find work once they are released from prison.
These folks should not have to rely on Congress to act to reduce excessive mandatory prison sentences. And we certainly shouldn’t continue the practice of sending to prison those who don’t need to be incarcerated, but instead desperately need substance abuse treatment to end their addictions.
Ohio lawmakers should seize on this moment and enact drug-sentencing reform without delay.
(Charles, a resident of Nashville, Tenn., spoke Oct. 23 in Steubenville as part of the Herald-Star Speaker Series.)