A More Just Way of Dealing with Drugs and Those They Harm

Editor’s Note: Robert Alt, President and CEO of the Buckeye Institute, urges that a reform of Ohio’s drug laws, in Senate Bill 3, will give hope to the addicted, punish those who are truly responsible, and save lives.

Robert Alt, your witness…

Ohio has faced two severe public health crises this year—the COVID-19 pandemic and drug addiction. Both have cost us dearly with similar, tragic death tolls and loved ones coping with loss. And yet Ohio’s public policy responses to these crises have been anything but the same.

To curb the pandemic, the state has closed restaurants, bars, small businesses, children’s schools, and stadiums; canceled weddings, funerals, holidays, and all manner of social gatherings; and imposed novel public health policies that have never been tried before.

To counter the perennial but growing problems of drug addiction and fatal overdoses, Ohio largely has done what it has always done and continued to execute various criminal justice policies that one can frankly say have failed.

Ohioans struggling with drug addiction can look hopefully to Senate Bill 3—which has passed the Senate 25-4, and the House Criminal Justice Committee—that offers a solid step in the right direction.

For decades, Ohio’s criminal code has been a collection of piecemeal, inconsistent legislation. In 2014, the General Assembly appointed the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee—a diverse group of practitioners, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, and prison officials—to study national best practices, survey the latest research, and propose sensible updates and reforms to Ohio’s criminal code. The Committee’s final report recommended comprehensive changes to Ohio’s drug-sentencing regime, including revamping the state’s mandatory sentencing structure.

Senate Bill 3 adopts many of the Committee’s expert recommendations and takes a commonsense, evidence-based approach to ensure that Ohio law more accurately distinguishes between the predators and the preyed upon, between drug traffickers and those battling addiction. Such an approach is long overdue.

Senate Bill 3 modifies Ohio’s drug-sentencing policies by sending low-level drug offenders to treatment centers rather than to jail. The bill builds upon credible independent academic research and Ohio’s own Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (T-CAP) program by ensuring that those addicted to drugs do not sit in prison, but get the rehabilitation that they need.

Critics of Senate Bill 3 appeal to current law as a baseline, and suggest that any reduction in sentencing is a move in the wrong direction. Such arguments put far too much faith in a demonstrably failed system. Instead of relying upon the status quo, Ohio should apply national best practices and empirical, evidence-based criteria to inform its public policy. Senate Bill 3 takes such an approach and, in many cases, prescribes stiffer penalties than both the current law and those recommended by the Recodification Committee.

Even still, study after study shows that harsh prison sentences for individuals convicted of drug crimes do not deter drug use, drug arrests, or reduce overdose deaths. According to a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study, for example, a prison sentence has little—if any—deterrent effect on future drug use by nonviolent drug offenders. The study found that “On average, incarceration in the United States costs approximately $22,000 per month, and there is little evidence that this strategy reduces drug use or drug-related reincarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders,” and concluded that drug treatment for drug-abusing offenders is far more effective than prison terms for advancing public health and safety objectives.

Similarly, a 2018 Pew Charitable Trusts study found precisely no correlation between imprisonment rates and the rates of drug use, overdose deaths, or drug arrests. The study posited that the “absence of any relationship between states’ rates of drug imprisonment and drug problems suggests that expanding drug imprisonment is not likely to be an effective national drug control and prevention strategy.” Instead, the study recommended enhancing treatment options and reforming drug-sentencing laws to keep people out of the corrections system as a more effective method of reducing drug use.

Reclassifying drug-possession offenses and restructuring drug-trafficking categories based upon data-driven analysis will serve Ohio well, and fair-minded Ohioans of all political stripes and philosophical bents should be able to agree as much. These welcome reforms address an ongoing crisis that Ohio has neglected for too long. Relying upon empirical studies and fact-based practitioner advice, Senate Bill 3 carefully balances the public safety needs of the community, the treatment needs of drug users, and the sentencing discretion of Ohio’s judges.

We have already lost too many Ohioans. We can do better.