The debate over Ohio’s Issue 1

October 4, 2018

Ryan Powers and Paul Eselgroth report on a ballot measure in Ohio that would be a welcome step forward for some victims of the “war on drugs” and the prison system.

THIS NOVEMBER, Ohio ballots will include State Issue 1, a proposed amendment to the state Constitution designed to decrease incarceration rates, particularly those related to drug possession.

The amendment consists of four reforms. If passed, it would: reclassify nonviolent, possessions-level drug offenses as misdemeanors — as opposed to the current felony classification — with past offenses also qualifying for reclassification; prohibit prison sentences as punishment for technical probation violations that are not new criminal offenses; expand prison rehabilitation programs and allow inmates to earn sentence reductions that are more in line with the national averages; and redirect state funds saved through the these reforms (estimated to be tens of millions annually) into drug treatment and rehabilitation services.

The motivation is straightforward. America’s 50-year “war on drugs” has been an absolute disaster for working-class and poor communities, miserably failing at its professed goal of reducing the illegal drug trade, while simultaneously criminalizing and imprisoning ever greater numbers of people for drug-related offenses.

Community members attend a panel discussion on Ohio Issue 1 in Columbus
Community members attend a panel discussion on Ohio Issue 1 in Columbus (People's Justice Project | Twitter)

At the same time, the problem of addiction has continued unabated, with few practical treatment options available. This is especially true for the poor and people of color, who routinely suffer the brunt of the policing and incarceration with the fewest rehabilitative options. The proposed amendment addresses both of these problems, reducing the legal penalties while also mandating the expansion of treatment services.

Initiated by a handful of reform organizations, including the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and Ohio Transformation Fund, with some national support from the Alliance for Safety and Justice, Issue 1 would mirror similar statutes passed in California and Oklahoma in recent years.

GIVEN THAT the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, such reforms would be welcome.

The fact that Issue 1 is a citizen-initiated measure and not tied to any particular candidate or party also is noteworthy. The decision to pursue this route was driven by an express desire to bypass the state legislature and put the vote directly to the electorate. According to the American Civil Liberties Union:

The Ohio General Assembly has had the opportunity to create meaningful criminal justice reform for decades, and they’ve failed to pass laws that adequately address our addiction and mass incarceration crises. In fact, the prison population continues to soar, because our lawmakers repeatedly create new crimes, expand current crimes and enhance sentences. We call this the Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline, and it’s simply not working.

The groups behind Issue 1 also decided to pursue the measure as a constitutional amendment, rather than a more typical initiated statute. While both can be initiated by citizens, initiated statutes are subject to alteration by the state legislature before appearing on the ballot, whereas a constitutional amendment is not.

Andrea Reany, an Athens, Ohio, resident and member of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), described the importance of this:

It is something that affects all walks of life in Ohio. We saw it as a way to make a really direct difference. The other important thing about this is that it’s an amendment to the constitution, and it’s not some proposed bill that’s going to go through the State House and then the next election cycle someone’s going to undo good work that was done.

The response thus far has been massive. An extensive statewide signature-collection effort was mounted in order to meet Ohio’s stringent signature requirements for citizen-initiated measures. The minimum threshold was well exceeded, with 730,031 signatures filed — the second-highest of any initiated amendment in state history.

In addition to questioning the role of legislators in the process, Issue 1 organizers have expressly articulated the need to build a persistent base of support that can last beyond the election cycle, to ensure that policies and programs are implemented competently and in good faith — and to apply grassroots pressure if they’re not.

OPPOSITION TO Issue 1 has largely come from the right, which is invoking the same tired myths and fears about “public safety” and “violent criminals” that have historically been used to justify the war on drugs.

Many of the alarmist claims are patently false — including the notion that Issue 1 would allow for the release of large numbers of murderers and rapists — and easily disproven with a cursory reading of the amendment text.

There are other claims about Issue 1 that play on fears about the current opioid epidemic ravaging large portions of the country. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor opposes the amendment, stating that its “passage would gravely endanger Ohioans.”

In particular, O’Connor has raised alarm over the quantity of the synthetic opioid fentanyl that an individual would be permitted to possess without incurring a felony penalty, suggesting that it could fuel a massive number of fatal overdoses. She further argues that without the threat of legal punishment for drug users, there would be “little legal incentive to push addicts into treatment.”

O’Connor’s words are misleading and engage in the same manipulative, alarmist rhetoric the political establishment has employed for decades around the drug war. Fentanyl may have replaced crack cocaine as the current boogeyman of choice, but we know the routine. We also know that prison time has proven an inefficient “stick” to wield against drug users for decades.

Substance use and addiction are problems with deep social roots that go further than the supposed failure of individuals to choose sobriety and rehabilitation.

Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer bear responsibility for pushing opioids like Oxycontin for decades in order to reap massive profits. Once they could no longer afford their prescriptions, many users turned to street drugs like heroin and, now, fentanyl. Hundreds of thousands of deaths are on the hands of these companies.

Even while supporting Issue 1, Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray have used right-wing rhetoric about being “tough on crime,” conveniently ignoring the roots of the opioid crisis.

Cordray recently pledged in a statement, “As governor, I will work with law enforcement to make sure drug dealers are convicted and serve long prison sentences while people who need substance abuse treatment can get it in our communities.”

His campaign also said that the amendment “is not about letting criminals run free — it’s about cracking down on criminals, dealers and traffickers. This is about locking up those who are plaguing our communities and getting addicts in recovery.”

In short, even much of the liberal support of this bill focuses on upholding incarceration, leaving recovery as an afterthought.

Despite weak support from Democratic officeholders, however, Issue 1 would be a blow to the failed war on drugs and the racist, profit-driven system of mass incarceration.

THAT’S NOT to say there aren’t problems and limitations to Issue 1, spurious right-wing smears notwithstanding.

The most immediately obvious is that many imprisoned people won’t be reached by this reform. The prison system is one of the most brutal, racist aspects of a system of social control that serves the needs of the ruling class, and fails at rehabilitation, prevention and protection.

As such, socialists are for ultimately abolishing prisons in favor of better alternatives, developed to address our social needs in a just way. That includes disentangling drug trafficking, violent crimes and other serious offenses from the present ineffective and inhumane carceral system.

That’s, of course, a hard argument to make for many people who cannot necessarily envision a society in which people’s needs could be met, undermining the root causes of crime and how we treat those who engage in substance use and other acts deemed criminal.

Addiction and crime have strong roots in the oppression, alienation and poverty that are hallmarks of a class society — and those causes will have to be confronted to reach any real, systemic resolution. So while the reforms put forward in Issue 1 would be a welcome reprieve for many thousands currently faced with incarceration, we ultimately have much further to go.

Beyond these limitations, the language of Issue 1 — using a “violent” vs. “nonviolent” offender framework — can easily veer into delineating who the “good” prisoners are (who deserves to be free) versus the “bad” prisoners (who belong in the present system).

This helps to further legitimize the prison system, since charges of “violent” crime are unevenly applied and disproportionately deployed against marginalized populations, particularly people of color.

But overall, Issue 1 presents an opportunity to not only win important reforms, but to build consciousness and organization toward future reforms and, hopefully one day, the abolition of s system in which human needs are met with prisons instead of help.

Locally, the organizing around Issue 1 has helped make the case for needed reforms and brought activists together to expand the debate about the role of prisons in our society.

If it is successful at the ballot box, the real test will be what follows after — as supporters will be forced to grapple with the many inevitable obstructions from a hostile political class, including a police and prison establishment that will attempt to undermine it at every turn.

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