Legislation could weaken push for help

Lawmakers who have introduced legislation to reduce the seriousness of drug possession crimes should rethink their plan, largely because it takes away often needed options for prosecutors and judges.

Senate Bill 3, a criminal justice reform bill introduced in February by Ohio Senators Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, and John Ecklund, R-Munson Township, seeks to make drug possession offenses misdemeanors rather than felonies.

While the measure, which is moving through committee hearings in Columbus, would toughen penalties for traffickers, it would lighten penalties for what some have described as small amounts of drugs like heroin and cocaine, reducing them from fourth- or fifth-degree felonies to misdemeanors.

The bill also calls for added help for addicts, including expanding the types of facilities where they can be sent for court-ordered treatment.

Lawmakers who introduced the bill have said we should stop treating addicts like criminals.

Now, we all have heard many heart-wrenching stories about countless Ohioans who became addicted to prescription pills, and that in many cases, those drug-dependent defendants end up facing a felony conviction, even when they really aren’t criminals but simply in need of help. Of course, we understand many of these folks just need a leg up to get past their addiction, and prison time isn’t always the answer.

But we’ve also heard the stories about drug addicts who are in denial, or who turn to the street to buy their opioid drugs or who refuse or struggle to get help.

In many cases, those are the people who need a judge to hold jail time over their heads to force them into that needed drug rehab program. That is unfortunate but the cold, hard truth.

This law would limit or remove that option.

Louis Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, recently told the Columbus Dispatch that his group supports the spirit of Senate Bill 3, but he’s concerned that the definition of “low-level drug possession” would include 49 doses of heroin and up to 59 doses of meth.

“We think that sends the wrong message about the danger of drugs,” he said. “The bar is too high.”

Tobin also thinks the bill could allow a person to sell more drugs and still get a lower penalty, getting probation with as many as 299 doses of heroin.

That’s a problem.

Even without reducing possible penalties, judges still could offer them the opportunity to attend drug court and eventually have their record wiped clean.

But at the end of the day, if an addict charged with drug possession comes before a judge who operates a drug treatment court, research has shown that defendant is in the best possible position to beat substance addiction and never return to the criminal justice system.

But also helping to force that compliance is the judge that maintains the ability to threaten incarceration should that defendant fail to comply.

Removing that threat would weaken the judge’s ability to push some addicts toward the help they need.