COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio's county prosecutors are recommending major changes to state drug laws, including the elimination of mandatory prison sentences for trafficking and possession of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs, except in the most serious cases.
The prosecutors also want to reduce several other non-drug crimes to misdemeanors from felonies, including assaulting a school teacher, administrator or school bus operator without physical harm; injuring a police dog or horse; illegal use of food stamps; and unauthorized use of a cable television or telecommunication device.
If approved, the changes would ratchet back some "tough-on-crime" laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s.
John E. Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the changes are intended to counter the Strickland administration's proposal to ease prison overcrowding by allowing inmates to accumulate seven days of "earned credit" per month by participating in programming. The credit would allow them to reduce their sentences -- even if they're serving definite or "flat" sentences -- so they can be released earlier.
"We do support a lot of mandatory penalties that deal with violence. But for crimes like drug trafficking, we have some reservation about whether there should be a mandatory prison sentence. It's still a crime. It still has a presumption for prison.
"It would still be up to the judge. In many cases, the judges would still send them to prison," Murphy said.
The prosecutors also want to give judges more flexibility in sending second-time offenders to drug treatment instead of incarceration. Now, only first-time offenders are eligible.
"There is a little bit different view on drug offenses than there was 20 years ago when many of these laws were enacted," he said.
Ohio prisons chief Terry Collins, who proposed the earned-credit idea to legislators as part of the administration's biennial budget, said he's glad prosecutors "are willing to help. We'll take their good ideas and put them with our ideas and improve the criminal-justice system."
However, Collins said, he's not throwing in the towel on the earned-credit proposal. He estimated it would save the state $11.4 million annually by removing 2,644 prisoners from the overcrowded system.
Ian N. Friedman, a Cleveland lawyer who is president of the 700-member Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the proposal "a realistic approach" that recognizes the overcrowding in Ohio's prisons and also acknowledges that there are alternative means of dealing with these cases other than prison.
David Diroll, head of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission who has been working with Ohio laws for more than 30 years, called the proposal "an historic change for the prosecutors"
"I'm not sure, as Terry Collins said, that we've lost the war on drugs, but we're in a holding pattern," Diroll said.
Under the prosecutors' proposal, the amount of drugs that would trigger a mandatory prison sentence would be very large -- a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of powder cocaine and 20 kilograms of marijuana, Diroll said.
"From the perspective of the judges, they have wanted more flexibility in these matters. ... It's one of those things where out of crisis comes opportunity."
Delaware County Prosecutor Dave Yost said many felony upgrades enacted by the General Assembly in recent years, including making felonies of some crimes against people in specific jobs, did not have the blessing of prosecutors statewide.
"A victim is a victim, no matter what. You bleed the same way."
Yost said the proposed changes would not mean drug dealers would be placed on probation, but judges will have more options in dealing with them.