Pubdate: Sat, 13 Jul 2002
Source: Cincinnati Post (OH)
Copyright: 2002 The Cincinnati Post
Author: Randy Ludlow
Note: Randy Ludlow is The Post's Statehouse bureau chief.


COLUMBUS - The 10-second argument is simple: Should minor first-or 
second-time drug offenders receive treatment in lieu of prison?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Absent other crimes, little can be gained - and much more lost - by sending 
non-violent addicts to prison simply because they cannot resist the poison 
which has enslaved them.

And, Ohio law indeed counsels addiction treatment over incarceration for 
those convicted of low-level felonies such as drug abuse and possession 
involving small, personal-use amounts.

So what is the danger of asking voters to approve a constitutional 
amendment to reinforce the reality of existing law by mandating treatment 
and precluding up to 18 months in prison for some drug offenders?

Is it not preferable to spend $3,500 a year on treatment instead of $22,044 
to house an addict in state prison? Again, the answer is easy.

But, as we know, few things ever are as simple as they appear.

"The 10-second argument is an easy one, but the 10-minute argument is more 
complicated," says David Diroll, executive director of the Ohio Criminal 
Sentencing Commission, of the proposed ballot issue.

On its face and in its simplest form - and that's what the TV commercials 
will play up if the measure indeed qualifies for the Nov. 5 ballot - the 
drug treatment initiative embodies common sense and is alluringly attractive.

But, when you begin to dig into its 6,500 words, critics contend, problems 
begin to bubble to the surface, led by the inflexibility it imposes on 
judges to do what they must to help a drug addict turn his life around.

Gov. Bob Taft and the criminal justice community contend the threat of a 
prison sentence of up to 18 months provides a powerful incentive for drug 
offenders to remain in treatment programs and stay clean.

Judges, including those in Ohio's 48 drug courts, report success placing 
addicts back on the road to recovery with "flash" incarceration - a short 
jail stay to send a warning to addicts whose urine tests come up dirty.

But, ultimately, some refuse to stay in treatment and off their drug of 
choice and are sent to state prison. About 1,500 first- and second- time 
offenders are incarcerated annually, but many of them also committed 
non-drug crimes or plea bargained to a lesser drug charge.

Under the initiative proposed by the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies, 
first- and second-time offenders could not be sent to prison and judges 
would lose their discretion to issue a brief behind-bars wake-up call.

Those who skip treatment or regularly test positive for drug use could be 
sent to jail for only 90 days. "This would set up a revolving door of 
treatment where addicts could escape responsibility for their actions . . . 
a get-out-of-jail free card," Taft said this week.

Then, there's the cost question. Advocates of the ballot issue contend the 
state would save millions by not imprisoning minor drug offenders. But the 
constitutional amendment would require the state to spend $38 million more 
a year on drug treatment for offenders.

Led by the governor and First Lady Hope Taft, whose crusade against 
substance abuse has its roots in Cincinnati, opponents of the drug 
sentencing reform movement will be many, its publicly identified supporters 

Among those supporting the pending ballot issue are some black leaders, 
including members of the Ohio General Assembly, who note the minor drug 
offenders sent to prison are overwhelmingly African American.

A Cincinnati civil rights pioneer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, is among those 
supporting the measure: "People should be given at least two opportunities 
to clean their lives up.

"This does not excuse drugs or any crime, small or large, but it does say 
we ought to be for prevention rather than persecution. That was part of the 
message of Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ, that society is guilty of 
being the hardest on the people it ought to help the most."

Voters likely will have to decide this fall which they believe works best - 
tough love or lenient love.
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