A Message to Central Ohio Physicians from City Attorney Zach Klein

City Attorney Zach Klein

As Columbus City Attorney, my office is responsible for many facets of the law, including prosecuting all criminal misdemeanors in the City of Columbus.  That’s approximately 21,000 cases per year.  We also work in tandem, and coordinate efforts when necessary, with the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office, which is responsible for all felony charges in the county.  Suffice it to say, we’re on the frontlines dealing with the effects of addiction and its intersection with the criminal justice system.

The reality is the status quo—the way our nation defined and then waged the “War on Drugs”—simply isn’t working.  Too many people are dying as the number of overdoses continues to rise at an alarming rate.  Our prisons are overcrowded, and too many lives are being destroyed with excessive felony convictions.  In fact, there are very few, if any, metrics one can highlight to show that we have been successful.

Policymakers can no longer ignore the obvious.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that more than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids—roughly doubling the number of fatalities in the last decade.  According to the Criminal Law Reform Project, the federal prison population has increased by almost 790 percent since 1980.  And the NAACP's study of the effects of incarceration shows that spending on prisons and jails has increased at three-times the rate of spending on pre-K-12 public education in the last 30 years. 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel.  We are finally starting to see a growing bipartisan consensus among elected officials and policymakers that a new, pragmatic and common-sense approach to our drug sentencing laws—and the criminal justice system in general—is needed in order to effectuate real change and truly increase public safety.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and I—a Republican and a Democrat—came together last year to create a plan to advocate for practical changes to Ohio’s drug laws.  This approach, informed by our experiences at the court house, called for a number of specific statutory modifications that reflects the basic reality that addiction must be addressed through treatment, not incarceration.  We took our proposal to state legislative leaders and worked with them to develop significant changes to our current laws.  The result is Senate Bill 3, a bipartisan legislative proposal that overhauls and reforms the way we treat addiction in the criminal justice system.

These reforms include:

  • Downgrading fourth- and fifth-degree low-level felony drug possession to a misdemeanor offense.  (Fentanyl, carfentanil and date rape drugs will remain a felony possession offense, regardless of amount.)

  • Creating a presumption towards rehabilitation for those convicted of misdemeanor drug possession to ensure they receive treatment and probation.  (Judicial discretion will be maintained to allow for the incarceration of individuals who refuse treatment.)

  • Allowing individuals who are currently charged to downgrade a low-level felony drug possession charge to the reclassified misdemeanor.

  • Expanding the ability of those with previous felony convictions for low-level drug possession to seal or expunge those convictions.

Downgrading from a felony low-level drug possession charge to a misdemeanor is critical.  As addiction specialists and medical professionals know, the science shows that addiction is a relapsing brain disease, and it’s imperative for those in the criminal justice system to accept that fundamental understanding.  Then we can shift from treating individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders (and oftentimes co-occurring mental health problems) like felons towards treating them as individuals afflicted with addiction who need help.  We can also retool the criminal justice system to be more effective in treating that addiction.  High conviction rates are not necessarily indicators of success.  It’s low recidivism rates that make us safer.

A few years ago we learned through researchers at Yale about the benefits of offering medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in emergency departments.  Here locally, we are pleased to see the increased use of MAT in our criminal justice system.  Our MAT program in the courthouse has seen about 134 individuals since July, and 75 of them have remained engaged with MAT and treatment.  There also is research showing that MAT is less costly when compared with other approaches that don’t combine immediate medication dispensation with treatment referrals.

As a country, we also need to rethink the aggressive way we characterize a majority of criminal conduct as felonies.  Felony convictions create unnecessary barriers to success once someone has served his or her time.  In some ways, labeling someone a felon can be like giving that person a life sentence, given the barriers—both legally and socially—we have put in place.  Two of the biggest barriers are those to safe housing and employment.  I have personally talked to employers who have said they cannot hire felons no matter how much the individual turned his or her life around.  That doesn’t make sense.  It’s like we’re asking folks to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but we’ve taken away their boots.

It’s important to note that the focus of these reforms is centered on helping those caught with low-level drug possession—who are likely battling addiction—not the drug traffickers who prey on them.  Drug trafficking is a separate conversation, and we must not conflate the two.  We are not advocating for a downgrade of all crimes to something less than a felony.  There are heinous crimes and individuals who should be labeled as felons and deserve severe prison sentences.   A pragmatic and smart approach to criminal justice reform can separate the two.

We now have the chance to create a different path that enables us to come together and make our system more just and effective.  We have a renewed opportunity to promote real reforms that will ultimately get more individuals into the addiction and mental health treatment that they desperately need. 

It will take all of us working together—from academia to the medical profession, from community organizations to law enforcement, from government officials to corporate America—to make sure these changes are implemented and real change happens.  We need the best ideas to ensure these reforms, once implemented, have the best chance for success.

In many ways, the historic approaches of the criminal justice system are rooted in doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  For example, a person stealing to feed an addiction will likely continue that conduct until help is received.  Why would we reasonably expect something different?  If we truly want to make our community safer, save taxpayer money, and change lives, we must start addressing and treating the underlying reasons why individuals commit crimes.  That approach will provide smart and effective justice for all.

AdvocacyZach Klein