To the editor:
Under the Code of Judicial Conduct, judges are not permitted to take positions on or speak with regard to elections. There is an exception for proposed changes to Ohio law that impact the courts and the administration of justice such as State Issue 1, which will be on the ballot in the upcoming election. The undersigned judges of Highland County write this letter in an effort to promote and preserve our justice system in Highland County and the State of Ohio.
The name and the commercials supporting Issue 1 sound great. Who could possibly oppose the “Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment”? Yet the name does not accurately reflect the consequences of the actual language of the proposal. It is an effort by its proponents to sell to Ohio voters what will be a legal, social and financial disaster.
Issue 1 would permanently reclassify drug possession violations that are currently fourth- or fifth-degree felonies to misdemeanors. This includes drugs that are killing thousands of people through Ohio and the nation such as fentanyl and carfentanyl. Possession of up to 19.99 grams of fentanyl, which is enough to kill 10,000 people — nearly a fourth of Highland County’s population — will be a misdemeanor. This provision will apply to all drugs as defined now or in the future in Ohio law, including those that are not considered addictive but that can be used to commit other crimes, such as “date rape” drugs in sexual assault cases.
Judges will be prohibited from imposing a jail sentence for any misdemeanor drug possession offense unless it is the third offense within a two-year period. A jail term cannot be imposed even if the offender repeatedly fails to comply with any of the terms of probation ordered by the court, including participating in substance abuse treatment.
Common pleas judges will be prohibited from revoking the probation of any felony offender and sentencing them to a prison term unless he or she commits a new criminal offense. Regardless of the number or seriousness of the violations, the most serious sanction could be a sentence to the county jail of up to six months total for all violations. Those in prison now will be in the county jail for probation violations, replacing those who previously were incarcerated for misdemeanors. No funds are required to be allocated to counties to pay this expense, which will be substantial for Highland County.
Proponents assert the amendment will divert offenders from prison and local jails to treatment programs. Talk to any judge or any substance abuse treatment provider. They will confirm that most if not all of the persons that are currently in treatment for drug abuse by a court order that has consequences if they do not participate.
How has this worked in California, which adopted a similar provision a few years ago? According to a study conducted by UCLA, nearly one third of the offenders ordered into treatment failed to report at all. Only 25 percent of those referred to treatment actually completed it. The primary reason was lack of significant consequences for failing to do so. In our opinion, if Issue 1 passes, it will cause a significant decrease in the number of offenders who go into treatment programs for the same reason.
Issue 1 also proposes a very dangerous “prison reform” measure, which is a 25 percent credit against the prison sentence of all current and future offenders sentenced to prison, except for those sentenced to death or life without parole, murder and rape. The language of the issue also exempts those convicted of “child molestation.” There is no such offense under Ohio law, so all other sex offenders will be eligible for the credit, including those serving prison terms for sexual battery, gross sexual imposition, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and various child pornography felonies.
Many of the most violent offenders will also be eligible for the 25 percent credit, including those serving prison terms forinvoluntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, felonious assault, aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, robbery, aggravated burglary, burglary, kidnapping, arson, aggravated vehicular homicide, child endangerment and domestic violence. This will result in the early release of offenders from prison back to our neighborhoods. In California, after the early release of thousands of violent criminals pursuant to a similar initiative approved by its voters, there was a four percent increase in violent crime from 2015 to 2016. The same could happen in Ohio if Issue 1 is adopted. How does this make our neighborhoods safer?
There is an age old saying, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is not.” Do not rely upon the title of the issue or the promises in the ads that it will solve Ohio’s drug problem and make our state safer. Read the language of the entire proposal. Research it and talk to local judges, sheriffs, police officers, coroners, treatment professionals and even addicts that have beaten their addiction. Most importantly, please vote on this issue.
Rocky A. Coss, judge, Highland County Common Pleas Court, General & Domestic Relations Divisions
David H. McKenna, judge, Hillsboro Municipal Court
Robert J. Judkins, judge, Highland County Court for Madison Township
Kevin L. Greer, judge, Highland County Common Pleas Court, Probate & Juvenile Divisions