Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine opposes bill to reducing drug possession penalties, is open to changes

Jackie Borchardt
Cincinnati Enquirer
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday he does not support a bill to reduce penalties for minor drug possession offenses and divert offenders to treatment but could support it if changes are made.

COLUMBUS – Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine does not support a bill to reduce penalties for low-level drug possession as written but said there's room for a compromise on the issue.

Senate Bill 3 would reclassify several felony-level drug possession charges as misdemeanors and divert offenders to treatment instead of prison. Judges could still sentence someone to up to 364 days in jail.

DeWine, in a year-end interview with The Enquirer and other USA Today Ohio Network sites, said he sides with judges, prosecutors and Ohio's Supreme Court chief justice who oppose the bill.

"This is one of the times when everyone has the same goal and it’s pretty simple to state – we want that person to get clean, to be able to stay clean, to get the help they need and not have a criminal record," DeWine, a former county prosecutor and state attorney general, said. "Where we disagree is how you achieve that."

Thursday could be the last day the legislature meets for the year and supporters of the bill hope to get it over the finish line. DeWine said there's time for legislators to pass a compromise bill "everyone can support."

A separate bill, House Bill 1, would encourage more treatment in place of jail or prison time and also remove the cap on fourth- and fifth-degree offenses in order to have one's criminal record sealed.

Supporters say the two bills will help move Ohio in the direction of helping people get treatment for their drug addictions. They argue that treatment is best outside of the criminal justice system and having a felony on one's record makes it difficult to get a job or resume a normal life. The bill would remove hundreds of "collateral sanctions" convicted felons face after they leave prison.

Judges say the threat of prison is a useful tool to goad people into treatment and make sure they complete it.

DeWine said he thinks removing that "hammer" would be a "terrible mistake:" "For many people, the only thing that’s going to get their attention is if something serious is hanging over their head."

The bill's supporters disagree and were swift to criticize the governor's comments. Ohio has the fifth highest drug overdose death rate in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If felony convictions worked, Ohio would have the lowest overdose rate in the country, said Shakyra Diaz Ohio state director for the Alliance for Safety and Justice. Diaz noted that Ohio counties with high incarceration rates for drug possession also have high overdose rates.

“Decades of evidence demonstrate that incarceration increases recidivism for people who are at low risk of reoffending or high risk for addiction or mental illness,” Diaz said.

Robert Alt, of the conservative Buckeye Institute think tank, noted DeWine, as attorney general, admitted Ohio can't arrest its way out of the addiction crisis and has to "do a better job in regard to treatment."

"Doing a better job of treatment requires Ohio to integrate evidence-based approaches, which is exactly what Senate Bill 3 does," Alt said in a statement. "Conservatives across Ohio support Senate Bill 3 because it saves lives as well as taxpayer money, and provides a humane option to those battling addiction."