On the Ballot: Felony to Misdemeanor

By Emma Jenkins

Imagine a world in which someone with a low-level, nonviolent drug charge would receive a misdemeanor— not a felony. Instead of spending a mandated half-year or more in prison, the individual could focus on treatment. They could eventually pursue a career of choice, rather than being turned away for their criminal record.

This vision may soon become a reality in Ohio. In November 2018, a constitutional amendment will be placed before Ohio voters regarding low-level drug charges. It’s called Issue 1: The Safe & Healthy Ohio Amendment.

“Overall, I think the impact we’re going to have is a criminal justice system that is more focused on redemption,” says Marais Jacon-Duffy, Communications Manager at Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

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How? Under this amendment, fourth and fifth degree felonies would become misdemeanors (that’s for possession/usage of any controlled substance within a specified amount). This does not include trafficking charges or violent crimes, which would remain felonies if the amendment passes.

Additionally, the amendment works to shut down the probation-prison pipeline by outright prohibiting further prison sentences for probation violations; except new felonies or misdemeanors.

“Simply breaking a [probation] rule isn’t going to send someone to prison,” Jacon-Duffy says.

The Issue 1 summary states that someone could earn one day off their prison term for every two days they participate in programs like job training, victim awareness or getting a GED. The proposed credit could only be applied to 25 percent of a sentence, and it would not be available to those convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation.

People currently in prison could be released, and those with felony convictions for possession could have those convictions reclassified. The Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC), who work to pass the amendment, estimate that Ohio’s prison population could drop by at least 10,000 people if it passes.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice O’Connor voiced strong opposition to the amendment in a letter she sent to judges across the state.

“We could easily become a magnet for substance abuse activity because there will be, in effect, very little consequence to engaging in such behavior,” she argues.

However, the amendment is backed by many. Issue 1 is currently endorsed by OOC, Ohio Justice and Policy Center and ACLU of Ohio, among others. Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz also contributed $1 million each to the campaign.

“We know there have been shortcomings in how America has dealt with drugs in the past,” says Jacon-Duffy, “so we are trying to learn from that and try something different”.

The decision is in the hands of Ohio voters this November.

The General Election will be held on November 6. Please check your voter registration at https://voterlookup.sos.state.oh.us/