ASHLAND - Various Ashland County and city officials participated in a joint press conference Thursday to air their concerns about Senate Bill 3 and to urge local residents to contact state lawmakers about the bill.
Ashland County Prosecutor Chris Tunnell, who organized and hosted the meeting, referred to the bill "misguided," while Municipal Court Judge John Good went as far as to call it "beyond troubling."
Also present to speak against the bill were Ashland Police Chief Dave Marcelli, Ashland County Sheriff E. Wayne Risner, Ashland Law Director Rick Wolfe, County Commissioner Jim Justice and Ashland County Common Pleas Court Judge Ron Forsthoefel.
The bill, which is pending in the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee, would reclassify drug offenses in the state in an attempt to help people struggling with drug addiction while cracking down on drug dealers.
Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, who is sponsoring the bipartisan bill along with Sens. John Eklund and Sean O’Brien, said drawing this kind of distinction between drug addicts and drug dealers is something constituents have repeatedly asked lawmakers to do.
Tunnell referred to the bill as "Issue 1 Light," referencing State Issue 1, which was rejected by voters last November.
Obhof disagreed, saying he was strongly opposed to State Issue 1 but supports this bill.
Obhof said the bill is based on recommendations of the criminal justice recodification committee, which included representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, legislators and others.
"This is something that's been worked on for close to five years now and had lots of input at the front end from law enforcement, from prosecutors, from the judiciary," Obhof said.
Under the provisions of the bill, low-level drug possession charges would be classified as misdemeanors rather than felonies, and offenders would be diverted to treatment programs rather than to jail.
Meanwhile, people found to be in possession of large quantities of illegal drugs could be charged with trafficking even if law enforcement officers and prosecutors could not prove intent to deal.
Tunnell said he believes the current version of the bill sets too high a threshold for possession of certain drugs to be considered a felony.
"For example when you're talking about heroin, under Senate Bill 3 you could have 50 unit doses of heroin on your person and it would be a misdemeanor possession charge... Anybody with 50 unit doses of heroin in their pocket is a dealer. Addicts don't carry that kind of quantity," Tunnell said.
Tunnell said drug dealers rarely carry all the drugs in their possession at one time or keep all their drugs in one place, so law enforcement officers are unlikely to find large enough quantities to charge someone as a trafficker under the provisions of the bill.
"Those people that are dealing are going to be treated as though they're possessing, and the people that you're trying to treat-- that we're currently getting into treatment through the criminal justice system-- are no longer going to have access to that treatment, because when you make it a misdemeanor you shut off the traditional methods that we use to addicts into treatment," Tunnell said.
In Ashland County, the local officials argued, people are often required to seek treatment as a condition of bond or are connected with treatment services while incarcerated.
Marcelli said the proposed law change would hamper officers' ability to investigate drug cases and get drugs off the streets because it would raise issues of probable cause.
He worries officers will be forced to wait until someone commits a property crime or a violent offense before they can be arrested on drug charges.
"While I'm compassionate toward people who find themselves addicted to heroin or opiates, I'm also aware the best way to combat this problem is to take these substances off the streets," Marcelli said. "If that means locking people up for possession, then that's what it means."
Good said he believes the lawmakers backing the bill are doing so to reduce state prison costs rather than to help people.
"This is nothing less than selling out the safety of our communities to balance the state budget," he said.
Obhof acknowledged the policy change may shift some of the burden from the state prisons to county jails but said he intends for the state to provide funding if that shift occurs.
"I think when you move people out of the state prison system, some of them will end up in local jails.... If we end up making changes to some of those systems, we intend to fully fund them. It doesn't do anybody any good to say, 'Okay let's take people from the state prison system and put them in the county jail that we're not providing the resources for.'
"It may shift burdens but it's not about that. What the policy changes are about is figuring out what is the right level of punishment for people's crimes and what alternative to the current system makes sense or might work better."
Obhof said he was surprised to hear the Ashland County officials called a press conference. He recently met with many of the same officials about the issue, took their concerns back to the bill's sponsors and asked the sponsors to work on some of those details.
Among the provisions currently being reconsidered, Obhof said, is the portion of the bill that lists the quantities of each drug that would fall under the new classifications.
"We could pass that bill anytime we want to. I have no doubt that we have the votes in the legislature for it, or certainly in the Senate," Obhof said. "But we're taking our time and working with judges and prosecutors to let them air out some of their concerns so we can make sure wherever we end up in a final version of the bill is something we all agree will work."
At the conclusion of the press conference, Tunnell urged local residents to contact the bill's sponsors and the members of the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee to voice their opinions. He provided a list of contacts, which is available on the Ashland County Prosecutor's website.