Editor’s note — This is the second in a three-part series examining Ohio Issue 1, a controversial constitutional amendment on the November ballot, from a variety of local perspectives.
Dinah Phillips and Paulette Donley, the respective leaders of the Highland County Democratic and Republican parties, don’t always see eye to eye on political issues, but on the matter of Ohio Issue 1, a constitutional amendment aimed at reducing statewide incarceration and funding drug treatment programs with the savings, they are in agreement.
Both women said they are voting “no” on the amendment in November, and they have not heard of any partisan Highland County residents who feel differently.
“Nobody that’s come into our headquarters has been supportive of Issue 1,” Phillips said.
Phillips, who is chairwoman of the Highland County Democratic Central/Executive Committee, said she opposes the issue as both a party leader and active court reporter. Phillips said her committee rarely endorses or condemns state issues, but she said many of the committee members with whom she has spoken “feel very strongly that they’re against the issue.”
Donley, who is chairwoman of the Highland County Republican Executive Committee, said the Highland County Republican Central Committee unanimously passed a motion last month opposing Issue 1.
“We’re glad as a party that law enforcement and the judicial community has joined us in asking for a ‘no’ vote on Issue 1,” she said. “I would say 98 percent of the people that we’ve come into contact with are asking, ‘How did this get on the ballot?’”
According to the Dayton Daily News, if approved, the issue will:
• Reclassify fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug possession and drug use crimes to misdemeanors with no jail time for first and second offenses committed within a two-year period, while keeping drug trafficking crimes as felonies.
• Prohibit judges from sending people to prison if they violate probation with something other than a new criminal violation, such as missing an appointment.
• Cut prison time by up to 25 percent for offenders who complete rehabilitation programs, except those convicted of murder, rape or child molestation.
• Divert money saved by lower statewide incarceration into drug treatment and crime victim programs.
• Allow people convicted of certain drug crimes to petition the court for re-sentencing or release or to have the charge changed.
Donley said many locals are concerned about the measure being proposed as a constitutional amendment, making it impossible to change without putting another amendment on the ballot.
“This is an issue, really, that should be debated in Columbus on the house floor after committees have reviewed it,” she said. “All laws are subject to change or some improvement… but to put it on the ballot like this is just wrong.”
Donley said while some local Republicans see why the amendment is appealing, they still can’t support it.
“There have been some who say part of this may seem logical — reaching out, trying to make people get drug treatment,” she said. “But most of them understand that the reason for the law in the first place is really to protect citizens.”
Personally, Donley said she sees voting “no” as “a no-brainer.”
“That’s what most people coming in are expressing,” she said, “especially with Highland County being one of those counties in Ohio that’s suffered greatly from drug abuse and so many deaths.”
Phillips said she feels the same way.
“I think that drugs are a real problem in our county,” she said. “We are fortunate in Highland County to have Judge McKenna, Judge Coss and Judge Greer, who come down with a heavy hand on those who are convicted of drug-related crimes. I’m fearful that if Issue 1 passes that the penalities are not going to be there for the judges to sentence them on.”
As previously reported, all four of the judges presiding over Highland County’s courts are opposed to the issue.
Phillips said Judge Rocky Coss, who presides over Highland County Common Pleas Court, has a reputation here and in surrounding counties for being tough on drug crimes.
She said she has heard of those who sell drugs in a neighboring county saying that Highland County is a bad place to traffic because of the judge’s heavy hand.
“The prevailing statement I hear there is, ‘Oh my gosh, if you’re gonna commit a drug crime, don’t do it in Highland County,’” she said. “I think it’s going to take his sentencing abilities away if Issue 1 passes, and sentences are not going to be nearly as stringent.”
Phillips said the Highland County Democratic Party has posted in its headquarters a handout written by Coss detailing the problems with Issue 1.
Phillips said while public opinion in larger cities is often divided across party lines, that’s not always the case in Highland County — especially when it comes to Issue 1.
“We’re all very independent thinkers down here,” she said.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.