While current drug policy criminalizes addiction and enforcement often targets low-income communities and people of color, the ACLU of Ohio works for fair and sensible drug policies that will support safe and healthy communities across Ohio.
What's Happening in Ohio
Ohio has the troubling distinction of ranking fourth among all 50 states in terms of severity of prison overcapacity, according to the recent U.S. Department of Justice report, Prisoners in 2013. More than one of every four incarcerations is for drug offenses and, of these offenses, roughly half are simply for possession, a non-violent crime.
Those interested in seeing federal and Ohio prison systems’ overcrowding ameliorated and drug policies further modernized and humanized should follow the progress of U.S. House Bill 2944. It was introduced June 25, 2015, by former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) and Education and Workforce Committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Virginia).
Federal initiatives like this bipartisan one do have impact on state governments’ law enforcement and judicial thinking; this proposed legislation could have impact down the road in Ohio. A two-page summary shows the bill’s main features, among which are:
- Limiting application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing.
- Sizably expanding existing “safety valves” allowing courts to resort to imprisonment less often, especially in less serious, drug-related cases.
- Reducing necessity for long prison sentences for second-offense drug cases and life sentences for third-time drug offenders.
- Expanding compassionate release and elderly prisoner release programs.
At present H.R. 2944 is under initial congressional committee study prior to movement to the U.S. House of Representatives.
America’s addiction to incarceration has caused the prison population to skyrocket in the past four decades. Criminalization of addiction has fueled this increase.
Nearly half of all those incarcerated in state prisons are nonviolent offenders, and nearly half of those offenders are serving time for low-level drug offenses. People from low-income communities and people of color are often most affected. Racial disparities are especially prevalent with marijuana arrests.
The Ohio General Assembly recently enacted a bill and is considering others to address addiction instead of further criminalizing it.
H.B. 170 – Opioid Overdose Prevention Prescription Access (enacted): expands the list of licensed health professionals, emergency responders, or peace officers who may prescribe or administer naloxone (commonly known as Narcan), a pharmaceutical drug used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose.
H.B. 363 – Immunity in Drug Related Emergencies (pending): provides immunity from criminal liability for those who seek help for either themselves or others when involved in a drug-related medical emergency.
H.B. 92 – Syringe Exchange Programs (pending): authorizes local boards of health to establish syringe exchanges.
Locking people up is not the way to combat drug use in Ohio. The focus must be on public health, rehabilitation, and decriminalization.
In the 2011-2012 session, legislators passed sentencing reform legislation, a good first step in criminal justice reform. However, Ohio prisons are still at 128% capacity. In a recent article, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Mohr predicted that overcrowding could rise to 154.1%, if the department were to take a 10% budget cut.
The ACLU of Ohio recommends the following policy changes which will reduce the prison population:
- Increase the number of earned credit opportunities for eligible inmates.
- Increase diversion of low-level non-violent offenders into substance abuse and mental health programs.
- Release aging state prisoners who pose no substantial public safety threat through age-based parole programs.
- Increase educational and rehabilitative programming in prison to jumpstart the reentry process and ensure lower recidivism rates.
 Johnson, A (December 10, 2012). Four Ohio prisons face possibility of closure under budget cuts. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/12/10/five-ohio-prisons-face-possibility-of-closure-under-budget-cuts.html
 Johnson, A. (January 7, 2013). Drug use in Ohio’s prisons spiked in ’12. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/01/07/drug-use-in-ohios-prisons-spiked-in-12.html
The ACLU of Ohio is a founding member of Citizens for a Safe & Fair Cleveland, a coalition created to work towards unbiased law enforcement and judicial equity as related to drug laws.
In 2008, the coalition commissioned a study to examine the selective enforcement of drug laws in Cuyahoga County. Selective Enforcement of Drug Laws in Cuyahoga County, Ohio: A Report on the Racial Effects of Geographic Disparities in Arrest Patterns finds that African Americans and other minorities in the city of Cleveland are more often charged with felony drug possession than their suburban peers.
Using the report as a resource, the coalition successfully lobbied Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to change the city’s procedure for handling drug paraphernalia cases to reflect those followed by greater Cuyahoga County.
In spring 2012, the Ohio State Senate attempted to add a controversial provision to the state budget review bill that would have required some Ohioans to a take drug tests before receiving public assistance.
The provision was dropped after a firestorm of criticism. However, some lawmakers, intent on following Florida’s bad example, are already planning on reintroducing the plan as a piece of standalone legislation. Governor John Kasich, who previously indicated that he would not support this type of legislation, now says the he would back the plan.
Despite many assumptions to the contrary, government assistance recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of the general population. In fact, 70 percent of all illicit drug users (not counting alcohol) ages 18-49 are employed full time.
The ACLU argues that mandatory drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. Florida’s legislation has already been blocked by a federal judge, and an executive order from Florida Governor Rick Scott targeting state workers for mandatory drug tests has also been struck down.
In addition to their well-documented constitutional problems, these policies are also fiscally unsound. Florida also learned this lesson the hard way when they realized it cost the state more to reimburse those who tested negative than they would have paid out to those who tested positive.
An ACLU supporter recently wrote about his personal objections to this policy. Read about it here.
Nearly 20 percent of Ohio’s inmates come from Cuyahoga County, meaning that Cuyahoga Country residents are severely over-represented in state prisons. Much of this is due to biased enforcement of drug-related crimes, based on race and geography.
On June 16, 2011, the ACLU of Ohio released “Overcharging, Overspending, Overlooking: Cuyahoga County’s Costly War on Drugs“. The report was made possible with support from the Drug Policy Alliance. It looks at the impact these policies have had on Cuyahoga County, and echoes a 2008 report commissioned by Citizens for a Safe and Fair Cleveland.
Although whites use and sell drugs at a similar rate to people of color, African Americans in Cuyahoga County are more likely than whites to be convicted of a felony drug offense. Suburban and out-of-town whites are more likely to receive a misdemeanor plea deal and access to diversion programs.
The ACLU of Ohio has focused on reducing disparities in Cuyahoga County through Citizens for a Safe and Fair Cleveland, a coalition that works for unbiased law enforcement and judicial equity for drug laws.
In 2008, the coalition found that many people of color in Cleveland were charged with felonies simply for having residue on paraphernalia. In other areas of the county, similar crimes were prosecuted as a misdemeanor. The coalition successfully lobbied Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to change the city’s procedure for handling drug paraphernalia cases to reflect those followed by greater Cuyahoga County.