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Ohio’s Issue 1 ballot initiative could ‘deal a blow’ to mass incarceration


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Ohio’s Issue 1 ballot initiative could ‘deal a blow’ to mass incarceration

  • In Alabama, Black people are 4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession

  • Washington Supreme Court bars life sentences for minors

  • But Illinois Supreme Court upholds life sentence for 18-year-old

  • Dashboard camera footage shows California cops assaulting a man and trying to cover it up

  • Marijuana, legally purchased in Oregon, gets man an 8-year sentence in Mississippi

In the Spotlight

Ohio’s Issue 1 ballot initiative could ‘deal a blow’ to mass incarceration

Next month, Ohio residents will vote on Issue 1, a ballot initiative that could “deal a blow to the war on drugs and mass incarceration,” according to German Lopez of Vox. It would “reduce drug possession offenses to misdemeanors, so they are no longer classified as felonies with harsher penalties” for a person’s first two convictions. It would “then use the money saved (because the state wouldn’t lock up as many people) on addiction treatment and crime victim funds.” [German Lopez / Vox] And it would make the new drug statutes retroactive: People currently incarcerated for drug offenses could petition for new sentences. If Ohio passes the initiative, it would join five other states that have already reclassified drug possession as a misdemeanor, all since 2014 (California and Oklahoma have done so via referendum). See also, our Political Report 10/18 edition.

It would also allow most prisoners, except for those convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation, to reduce their prison sentences by up to 25 percent by participating in prison rehabilitation programs.

Issue 1 would also bar judges from sending people to prison because of minor probation violations that aren’t themselves a crime. Today, people on probation are subject to long periods of incarceration for what are often called “technical violations,” which can include missing an appointment. Across the country, a significant percentage of prison admissions every year are for technical violations of parole or probation. As a public defender, this Daily Appeal curator saw clients incarcerated for missing probation check-ins, including, once, an appointment that her client was not informed about until after the appointment time had passed.

Policy Matters Ohio, a group that backs Issue 1, estimates that these provisions combined would decrease the prison population by approximately 10,000. The Urban Institute finds that simply by making drug possession a misdemeanor, the initiative would cut it by 3,400. The warnings about the safety risks of reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor are not supported by a new Urban Institute study about the impact that doing so has had in five states. “Reducing incarceration for drug offenses can produce significant public safety benefits when paired with investments in drug treatment and crime prevention strategies,” the authors write. See also, our Political Report 10/18 edition.

Many outspoken opponents, most of them Republican, seize on the funding that Issue 1 has received from donors outside the state, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Open Society Policy Center, and the Open Philanthropy Project. This argument is difficult to take seriously, however, since in 2010 and 2014, the Koch brothers poured funds into statehouse races, giving Republicans control over 70 percent of state legislatures, the highest number in the party’s history. Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has raised some eyebrows by teaming up with Van Jones to write an op-ed in support of Issue 1.

The Ohio police officers union, prosecutors’ union, and sheriff’s association have come out against the ballot initiative, as law enforcement seems to have adopted a knee-jerk reaction in opposition to most criminal justice reforms. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, many groups of judges have come out against it, including judges who preside over drug courts, which are meant to give fair and treatment-oriented sanctions to those charged with drug offenses. “It eliminates the single most important factor in rehabilitating people and helping them get off drugs, which is the threat of imposing a prison sentence for violating probation or continued criminal behavior,” Ohio Judge Jeannine Pratt wrote in a recent op-ed.

But this critique does not stand up to scrutiny. Responding to similar arguments from a different drug court judge, David Singleton, a law professor and the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center pointed out that Issue 1 does not take away a judge’s ability to send a person to jail, only the ability to send that person to prison for long periods of incarceration. “We don’t need the sledgehammer of prison,” said Singleton. “There are other ways to hold people accountable. For instance, graduated responses. If behavior is negative, there’s a consequence that is certain, swift, proportionate to what the violation was, and fair. There’s a range of options that judges have on the table.” A judge could obligate a defendant to come in more often, wear an ankle monitor, or do a stint in jail. [Dan Hurley / Cincinnati Edition]

And research has shown that swift and certain punishments can be effective. A now-famous study of the so-called HOPE program in Hawaii found promising results. The program began with a formal warning, given by a judge in open court, that any violation of probation will result in an immediate, brief jail stay. Probationers were not required to appear before judges regularly, but were subject to random drug tests without advance notice. If they failed, they were sentenced to a jail stay lasting a few days, to be served on the weekend or whenever would not interfere with the person’s work schedule. After repeated missed or positive drug tests, residential or other treatment might be mandated. Compared to probationers in a control group, after one year those in the HOPE program were found to be 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime and 72 percent less likely to use drugs. [National Institute of Justice]

“As a judge, I always consider rehabilitation rather than incarceration,” wrote Judge Pratt. “If Issue 1 passes, judicial discretion will be removed and we as a Judiciary will no longer be able to determine the length of offender’s prison sentence nor will we be able to send multiple repeat drug offenders to prison under most circumstances.” Decreased power seems to be a more sincere reason for judicial opposition, much like the judicial opposition to the initial bail reform bill in California. Another Ohio drug court judge recently hosted a town hall in his own courtroom about Issue 1, inviting only those who already agreed with him. There, he lamented that if Issue 1 passes, “my drug court would shrink drastically.”

Stories From The Appeal

A mural in Selma, Alabama, depicts police violence during the Selma to Montgomery
civil rights march. [Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

In Alabama, Black People Are 4 Times More Likely Than White People to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession. A new report details the state’s “War on Marijuana” ahead of a key DA election. [George Joseph]

Stories From Around the Country

Washington Supreme Court bars life sentences for minors: Yesterday, Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled that sentencing people to life in prison without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 is unconstitutional, joining 20 states and Washington, D.C., who have already outlawed the practice. The 5-4 ruling said that the sentence “constitutes cruel punishment,” and fails to achieve the legal goals of retribution or deterrence because children are different from adults. This ruling comes shortly after a unanimous decision that struck down the death penalty, finding that its current application is unconstitutional. This case addresses “an appeal filed by 39-year-old Brian Bassett, who was convicted of three counts of aggravated first-degree murder for fatally shooting his parents and drowning his 5-year-old brother in a bathtub in 1996, when he was 16,” according to the Seattle Times. [Paige Cornwell and Hannah Rodriguez / Seattle Times]

But Illinois Supreme Court upholds life sentence for 18-year-old: “The Illinois Supreme Court Thursday declined to expand sentencing protections afforded to juveniles to an 18-year-old offender, reversing an Illinois appellate court ruling that held unconstitutional a 76-year sentence without hope of parole to a defendant who committed murder at 18,” reports Injustice Watch. The appellate court in this case had found that the sentence violated the Illinois Constitution’s requirement that sentences consider the goal of rehabilitation: “[I]t shocks the moral sense of the community to send this young adult to prison for the remainder of his life, with no chance to rehabilitate himself into a useful member of society.” But the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. “New research findings do not necessarily alter that traditional line between adults and juveniles,” it found. “For sentencing purposes, the age of 18 marks the present line between juveniles and adults. As an 18-year-old, defendant falls on the adult side of that line.” [Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch]

Dashboard camera footage shows California cops assaulting a man and trying to cover it up: Two police dashboard camera videos suggest that an Orange County Sheriff’s Department officer brutally assaulted a man and worked with a supervisor to cover up the incident. In the early hours of Aug. 19, police officers found Orange County resident Mohamed Sayem intoxicated and sleeping in his car in a parking lot. When Sayem tries to get out of the car, one of the officers pins him against the car, and punches him repeatedly and rapidly in the face. “By the third punch, Sayem appears to lose consciousness and begins to collapse,” writes Matt Ferner for HuffPost. The officer continues to deliver blows. The officer later claimed that Sayem had tried to “bear hug” him, that he had grabbed his vest and refused to let go, and that he had used racial slurs, all of which are contradicted by the dashboard camera footage. According to the footage, after a supervisor at the scene checked his body camera, one of the officers, “apparently startled,” said, “You’re recording this now?” Another said, “You’ve been recording this the whole…” and before the sentence was completed, another officer appeared to flip off the supervisor’s recording device. [Matt Ferner / HuffPost]

Marijuana, legally purchased in Oregon, gets man an 8-year sentence in Mississippi: Driving through the Mississippi Delta last year, Patrick Beadle, a Jamaican-born Rastafarian musician from Oregon, was pulled over. “In the car was nearly three pounds of marijuana, which Beadle said he obtained legally in Oregon with his medical marijuana license to help treat the chronic pain in both of his knees after years of playing college basketball,” according to the Washington Post. “In Oregon, he might have faced a civil fine for possessing too much marijuana at one time.” But in Mississippi, he was charged with trafficking in a controlled substance, an offense with a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. In July, an all-white jury took all of 25 minutes to convict Beadle, who is black.” There was no evidence of trafficking. This week, Beadle was sentenced to eight years without the possibility of parole. [Meagan Flynn / Washington Post]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Wednesday.

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