The ACLU envisions a free, safe and just society, where civil liberties are secure for all. Throughout our history, we have worked to ensure that constitutional protections are extended to all and that opportunities for education, employment, legal representation, and political participation are not denied on the basis of race.
What's Happening in Ohio
Every day nearly 450,000 people languish in jail without ever being convicted of a crime. Ohio’s punitive bail system is costly, racially biased, counterproductive, and a key driver of mass incarceration. People suffer in local jails while awaiting trial, and low-level offenses such as drug possession cause many working Ohioans to lose their jobs. Most importantly, putting bail out of reach for thousands of low-income people violates our fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty. The ACLU of Ohio recommends reasonable and achievable reforms to end this unjust practice.
Read our resource Bail Reform: A Civil Liberties Briefing.
Ohio legislators feed mass incarceration by introducing bills that would send more people to our jails and prison for longer periods of time.
Learn more about the Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline.
This year, Ohio legislators have already introduced three bills that would expand penalties and sentences for drug use so far this year. SB 1, HB 4, and SB 42 further criminalize drug use, which should be treated through public health methods like rehabilitation, treatment, and education. These misguided bills continue to fill our already-overcrowded prisons and jails, without helping Ohioans.
SB 1: Revise Drug Laws
- Primary Sponsor: Senator Frank LaRose (R)
- Status: Approved by the Senate
- Summary: SB 1 will increase penalties for fentanyl, including low-level possession, and treat mixtures added to fentanyl the same as fentanyl for sentencing purposes. Learn more.
HB 4: Prescribe how cocaine is to be measured for offense
- Primary Sponsors: Representative Robert Cupp (R), Representative John Rogers (D)
- Status: Passed House (97-0); Currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee
- Summary: HB 4 will change how cocaine is measured for determining trafficking and possession sentences, and treat mixtures added to cocaine (like baking soda) the same as cocaine for sentencing purposes. Learn more.
SB 42: Specify that referring to a drug also refers to compounds
- Primary Sponsor: Senator John Eklund (R)
- Status: As Introduced; Currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee
- Summary: SB 42 will expand drug offense penalties to compounds and mixtures – treating mixtures added to drugs the same as the actual drug. Learn more.
Every session of the Ohio General Assembly, laws are introduced to create new crimes and enhance sentences for crimes already on the books. Now our jails and prisons are overflowing, and prisons designed to house 38,000 people hold nearly 51,000. This is mass incarceration by a thousand cuts.
The ACLU of Ohio reviewed all 1,004 bills introduced during the 2015-2016 legislative session and found nearly 1 in 10 included language to lock more people up longer. Sixteen of these bills became law. We’re calling on Ohio’s General Assembly to stop acting as a factory that produces new crimes and longer sentences to support an uninterrupted flow of prisoners into a legal pipeline that ends in jail or prison. Read Ohio’s Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline 2017.
After five months of negotiations, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the city of Cleveland have reached an agreement to reform the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) in the pattern or practice of using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The city of Cleveland has agreed to systematic changes in how its police officers and the community interact with one another. Major reforms in the settlement or “consent decree” include:
Creating a Community Police Commission that will promote greater engagement between Cleveland Police Department (CPD) and the many communities within Cleveland.
- Adopting a comprehensive community policing model to strengthen community partnerships and collaborative problem solving.
- Revising policies related to search, seizure, and detainment, and enhancing data collection on these interactions to identify incidents of racial profiling.
- Revising policies on use of force, which will be overseen by the creation of a Force Review Board.
- Making substantial changes to the Office of Professional Standards and the Police Review Board to ensure that all civilian complaints of police misconduct are thoroughly and effectively investigated.
- Providing better crisis intervention training to officers.
- Providing better mental health services and resources for officers.
- Conducting a comprehensive equipment and resource study to assess current needs and priorities within the CDP.
An independent monitor approved by the federal court will oversee the CDP’s compliance for an initial term of five years.
For more information:
With civil unrest still a reality after recent examples of militarized police forces on American streets, President Barack Obama took a step in the right direction this week. He issued an executive order that banned the transfer of certain types of militarized weaponry from federal agencies to local police departments nationwide.
Banned items include: bayonets; armored vehicles; grenade launchers; some camouflage uniforms; and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher. The order also established a “controlled equipment” list, with tightened requirements before federal agencies can transfer equipment to local cops. These include riot control equipment and drones. Federal agencies also will require local police to provide more data so the government can better track equipment.
The 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and subsequent acquittal of the George Zimmerman, the man responsible for Martin’s death, signaled the beginning of an awakening in America that has been long overdue.
The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of the post death de-humanization of Martin. The movement, unofficially named for the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter” on social media, calls for the affirmation all black lives. It demands an end to police practices of profiling, excessive use of force, and militarization, as well as pushes for criminal justice reforms to reduce mass incarceration.
As the Black Lives Matter movement began picking up speed, the summer of 2014 marked high profile killings of black people and, ironically, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the 1964 campaign to register African-Americans voters in Mississippi.
In late July 2014, Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, was choked to death by a white police officer on a city sidewalk. Garner told the police he couldn’t breathe 11 times before he died.
In early August 2014, two men were killed by police. The first, John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio, was shot on sight by a white police officer in a Wal-Mart store as he walked with a toy gun he picked up from a store shelf. His last words, “It’s not real.”
Next, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old from Ferguson, Missouri, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the middle of the street. Community outrage grew from the killing. Ferguson police responded to community concerns over abuse of force with military tanks and high powered weapons. For the first time the militarization of American police was in full view for the world to see.
The grand juries in the Garner, Crawford, and Brown cases did not indict the officers involved in their deaths. Particularly, the lack of indictments in the Garner and Brown cases fueled protests nationally.
Other Ohioans—all from Cleveland—have died at the hands of police. The November 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were shot 137 times by police officers, prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the Cleveland Police Department’s use of force. The DOJ issued its findings in December 2014.
In November 2014, Tanisha Anderson, who was experiencing a medical crisis, was killed by Cleveland police officers who used a “takedown move” as her family watch on. The week following Anderson’s death, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a Cleveland police officer within seconds of approaching him as a played at a recreation center with a toy gun.
The excessive use of force by police officers not only is a national problem, but very much an Ohio problem. At this time, conversations are continuing on improving police-community relations as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Years of zero-tolerance polices have proven to be ineffective, unfair, and excessive and the federal government has finally taken notice. Acknowledging that discrimination in school discipline is a problem, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice recently issued guidance to schools on the administration of discipline in a non-discriminatory manner.
The Ohio legislature is also examining zero-tolerance policies and taking a much-needed look at school discipline practices. According to the Ohio Department of Education, over 210,000 students received out-of-school suspensions during the 2012-2013 school. Approximately 53,000 students were suspended for fighting, while 131,615 were suspended for disobedient or disruptive behavior.
Ohio Senate Bill 167 would eliminate zero-tolerance school policies for violent, disruptive, or inappropriate student behavior, including excessive truancy, and prohibits the adoption of such policies in the future. Instead, it requires each school district to create its own multi-factored policy to deal with incidents on a case-by-case basis. It also requires school boards to create alternative strategies for handling bullying and harassment, as well as other student behavioral issues.
The ACLU of Ohio is committed to challenging zero tolerance policies that push children out of schools and into the justice system.
Read our testimony on S.B. 167
Read our blog post on the failure of zero tolerance in schools.
Freedom from sexual abuse is not a privilege; it is a right!
Nevertheless, Ohio’s Juvenile Detention facilities have one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the nation. Often the children inside are also being kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.
The ACLU of Ohio has asked the Department of Youth Services (DYS) to address these problems by formally declaring that juveniles have a right to be free from sexual victimization while inside Ohio’s detention facilities. We’re also asking them to ban the extended seclusion/isolation of juveniles beyond 24 consecutive hours.
See our 5/22/2014 update: Ohio agrees to end seclusion in youth prisons
Update: On June 27, 2013, thanks to an outpouring of support from all around the country the U.S Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform through S. 744, a bill which moves our country one step closer to putting aspiring Americans on the path to citizenship.
This bill is an important first step, but our work is far from complete. The legislation still needs approval from the U.S. House and we remain concerned about the border militarization and employer verifications provisions within the bill. We will continue to keep you updated on the status of this legislation and provide you with opportunities to make your voice heard.
Immigration legislation is finally headed to the full U.S. Senate.
Congress has an opportunity to make history by giving millions of aspiring Americans who contribute to our country every day the opportunity to earn citizenship.
On April 9, 2013 the ACLU of Ohio released a timeline to state legislators and the public chronicling the first 18-months in the life of Lake Erie Correctional Institution (LaECI), the nation’s first prison sold to a for-profit company.
The timeline tells the story of a facility that has rapidly become unsafe for inmates, employees, and the surrounding community.
Update: In late April, 2013, the ACLU met with Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor on this issue. In June, the Ohio Supreme Court announced that it will increase efforts to educate local courts on how they should handle indigent defendants. These efforts will include a publication for judges, magistrates, and other court officials that lists the appropriate procedures for indigency hearings.
In February 2014, The Supreme Court of Ohio released a new “bench card” giving much needed instructions to Ohio judges to help them avoid debtors’ prison practices in their courtrooms. These instructions came as a result of The Outskirts of Hope, and the ACLU of Ohio’s subsequent meetings with Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor on this issue.
Update March 14, 2016: Following our attendance at a White House convening on the criminalization of poverty, the Department of Justice sent a letter to state Chief Justices and state court administrators calling on them to stop unconstitutional policies that have locked low-income people in a cycle of fines, debt and jail.
The Constitution prohibits courts from jailing those who can’t afford to pay their fines.
So does Ohio law.
Our courts are doing it anyway.
Click here to learn more.
Thanks to the efforts of activists and advocacy groups, the Ohio General Assembly has not yet passed House Bill 159, which would restrict access to the polls for all Ohioans and for voters of color in particular. However, the OGA will continue to debate the bill. HB 159 requires a voter to show one of four kinds of government-issued photo ID and amounts to a modern day poll tax for people who do not already have an ID. Research shows that this includes more than 21 million Americans; a disproportionate number of whom are racial and ethnic minorities.
More information about HB 159 and protecting your right to vote is available on our Voting Rights page.
After declaring their birth certificates issued prior to 2010 invalid, Puerto Rico is facing a backlog of requests for new birth certificates. Without the documents, many Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are unable to obtain a state I.D., which can be necessary for securing employment, voting, or accessing social services.
In January 2010, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico decided to begin issuing new, more secure birth certificates, and by September of that year, they no longer recognized certificates issued before 2010. However, the Ohio BMV refused to recognize Puerto Rican birth certificates from April 2010, well before many Puerto Ricans had their new documents. The ACLU of Ohio called on the Ohio BMV to end this discriminatory policy.
People of color are grossly overrepresented at every step of the criminal justice system, and nearly half of people incarcerated are black or Latino. In August 2010, the ACLU of Ohio released a report that reveals the unfair policies and practices that result in disproportionate incarceration of people of color in Ohio. “Reform Cannot Wait: A Comprehensive Examination of the Cost of Incarceration in Ohio from 1991-2010” also highlights the cost of these disparities for all Ohioans.
In June 2011, the ACLU of Ohio focused specifically on racial justice and drug policy in the greater Cleveland area in “Overcharging, Overspending, Overlooking: Cuyahoga County’s Costly War on Drugs“. The report shows that drug policies are not enforced fairly based on the person’s race and where the person lives and was made possible by support from the Drug Policy Alliance.
Youth of color are more likely than their peers to be arrested, charged, adjudicated delinquent, and detained in a juvenile facility. The ACLU, the ACLU of Ohio, the Children’s Law Center and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender are currently monitoring these disparities, termed “disproportionate minority contact,” and released a Report Card: Evaluating Juvenile Justice in Ohio.
In 2007, the Department of Youth Services began an effort to monitor and reduce disproportionate minority contact. The ACLU of Ohio is currently evaluating if these efforts have been successful and plans to update the Report Card in Fall of 2011.
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.
Incarcerating a person simply because he or she cannot afford to pay court costs and fines is prohibited by state law and unconstitutional. The ACLU of Ohio has questioned one Erie County judge about his practice of jailing defendants who cannot or do not pay fines or fees, and has also spoken out against pay-to-stay jail schemes in Summit County, Monroe County, and Franklin County.
In October 2010, the ACLU released “In For A Penny”, a startling new report that profiles five states — including Ohio — that imprison people because they cannot pay fines. The report highlights the negative consequences for budgets and public safety, noting that jailing one person for 30 days costs more than $1500, causes disruptions in employment, and can contribute to recidivism.