Commentary

12.12.19

Why We Now Oppose Senate Bill 3

By

Ohio Statehouse

Senate Bill 3 was introduced at the beginning of this legislative session, in early 2019.  Its unveiling was a welcome sign that perhaps Ohio may enjoy the benefits of the most significant sentencing/criminal justice reform bill in the past 8 years.  Unfortunately, criminal justice reform bills are a rare occurrence in the Ohio legislature.  So, we were understandably excited.

SB 3 is sponsored by Senator Eklund, a Republican and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill was ultimately assigned.  His cosponsor is Senator O’Brien, a Democrat and also a member of Senate Judiciary. The two sponsors were promising Ohioans that this legislation would “transform our broken justice system.” Also lending his significant support is Senate President Obhof, someone you surely want on your side with any legislation.  In other words, its passage through (at the least) the Senate was considered a sure thing.

From the very start, the ACLU of Ohio offered enthusiastic and public support. We provided proponent testimony, met with legislators, worked in coalition with many others on the left and right, activated our members and others to support it, and promoted it for months via social media, traditional media, and public appearances.

All this despite SB 3 not being perfect.  Of course, no legislation is perfect.  Often times you have to accept a flawed bill and support it nonetheless when it means some amount of overall reform of our broken criminal justice system.  So, we continued to endorse SB 3 even though it contains several provisions that limit its overall effectiveness.  We also could not convince legislators to make SB 3 significantly better, such as making it retroactive – which Senate President Obhof himself publicly said he supports.  Additional provisions to limit SB 3’s overall positive effects also remain and legislators showed no signs of budging on them.  Still, we remained in support.

From the moment SB 3 was introduced, we also knew Ohio’s prosecutors and judges would whack away at it.  (Because that is what they do with every single, meaningful criminal justice reform bill at the Statehouse.)  We crossed our fingers, hoped SB 3 would not change too terribly much for the worse, and explained to legislators why SB 3 should proceed without any significant dilution.

They did not listen.

On Wednesday, December 11, as expected, the Senate Judiciary Committee met to accept amendments to Senate Bill 3.  The very first amendment the committee accepted took existing Senate Bill 55 (which we’ve been strong opponents of for months) and combined it with SB 3.  It was then we knew our support of SB 3 was officially over.

SB 55 is a perpetuation and continuation of the failed War on Drugs.  It is a bill originating with Ohio’s prosecutors to up the felony penalties for drug trafficking by one degree across Ohio.  Of course, simply increasing those penalties might be a tougher sale to the public who remains concerned about the numerous negative ramifications of mass incarceration.

So, SB 55 subtly enhances these penalties by couching it as applying only to trafficking penalties that occur within 1,000 feet (3+ football fields every direction) of a treatment center.  However, because denser, urban areas offers treatment in many places, SB 55 applies in many places across Ohio.  In addition, SB 55 contains no requirement that the person selling drugs knowingly sell drugs within that arbitrary distance or that they knowingly sell to a person seeking treatment.  We repeatedly urged legislators to add a “knowingly” standard to SB 55.  But they refused.  So, while SB 55 is sold as legislation with limited scope, the reality is it will have widespread negative effects.

Our past efforts to improve SB 55 were borne out of recognition that the #2 reason people are sent to our overcrowded prisons is because of drug trafficking and the fact drug traffickers are already punished with significant felony convictions, making SB 55, at the very least, unnecessary.

So, when legislators further weakened SB 3 by adding SB 55 it became too much for the ACLU of Ohio.  Given our attention to, work on, and constant pushback against the Ohio legislature’s support of mass incarceration, how could we possibly support SB 3 now with new language that deliberately increases our prison numbers, wiping out any gains SB 3 might otherwise accomplish?

So, it is with great regret and disappointment we have no choice but to officially oppose SB 3.

It was once a positive bill that recognized Ohio’s existing approach to issues of drug addiction and sentencing is wrong.   Now, Senate Bill 3 has become more of the same.  The Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline in Ohio continues.  The ACLU of Ohio continues to fight it.  For you, for our members, for Ohio, and most importantly – for those many, many Ohioans directly impacted by the failures of our criminal justice system.

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