COLUMBUS — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of several out-of-state philanthropists pushing an Ohio measure that would bar prison sentences for individuals convicted of drug possession.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s advocacy arm contributed $1 million to support Ohio Issue 1, according to state campaign finance reports filed earlier this month.
The Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign, which is backing the proposed constitutional amendment, raised $4.1 million this year through the end of July. All but $19,000 came from donors outside of Ohio.
Other big donations include: $1 million from the Open Society Policy Center, a 501(c)4 organization founded by billionaire George Soros and $1 million from the Open Philanthropy Project, which is funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna. California businessman Nicholas Pritzker and his wife, Susan, contributed $50,000 and $10,000, respectively.
Opposition to Issue 1 isn’t as deep-pocketed. Formally, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and Ohio Common Pleas Judges’ Association have opposed the measure. The Ohio Judicial Conference has not yet taken a position, but its Executive Director Paul Pfeifer, a former Ohio Supreme Court Justice, co-authored the official arguments against Issue 1.
The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment would:
- Reclassify drug possession offenses as misdemeanor crimes, except for drug possession or trafficking offenses currently categorized as first-, second- or third-degree felonies;
- Prohibit jail sentences for drug possession until an individual’s third offense within 24 months;
- Allow inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to reduce their sentences up to 25 percent for completing rehabilitative, work or educational programming;
- Apply cost savings from reduced prison expenses to drug treatment programs and crime victim services.
The issue is backed by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a coalition of labor unions, faith-based organizations and community organizers. The measure has attracted the support of organizations and individuals that advocate more lenient sentencing for low-level crimes and greater opportunities for individuals to contribute to society after leaving prison.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by the Facebook mogul and his wife, Priscilla Chan, said Issue 1 will “put taxpayer dollars to better use by reducing reliance on prisons to address certain non-violent offenses, including drug use and possession.”
“Relying on incarceration to solve addiction and the conditions that drive lower level crimes actually doesn’t make communities safer, and it results in huge expenses to taxpayers with devastating impact to individuals, families, and entire communities,” said Ana Zamora, criminal justice manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in a statement.
Ohio prisons Director Gary Mohr expressed support for the proposal during a City Club event last week but came short of endorsing it. Mohr has advocated for alternatives to prison for drug possession convictions, which he says are driving inmate population increases.
Wednesday’s meeting of the Ohio Ballot Board offered a preview of the debate voters will see leading up to Election Day. After an hour of back and forth from both sides, the bipartisan Ballot Board approved an amendment summary Ohio voters will see on their ballots in November.
Pfeifer and Louis Tobin of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said the measure has several flaws that will make Ohio less safe.
- The language dealing with drug trafficking offenses uses the word “conviction” instead of offense;
- Courts wouldn’t be able to use prison as a threat to get someone into drug treatment programs, which Pfeifer said is sometimes the only way someone gets treatment;
- Costs for drug treatment and rehabilitation would be shifted to local governments.
“There are not many people who are addicted to these serious drugs who voluntarily go into drug treatment,” Pfeifer told the Ballot Board. “It just doesn’t happen. Families try. They can’t get them there. Friends try.”
Unlike other states, Tobin said, Ohio does not have a “possession with intent to sell” offense. Tobin said by referring to felony drug possession convictions instead of offenses, individuals caught with large amounts of drugs could get way with only a misdemeanor conviction if the prosecutor can’t prove they were actually selling the drugs.
Don McTigue, attorney for the Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign, disagreed with Tobin’s line of reasoning.
“That’s stupid,” McTigue said. He referenced Ohio law that presumes a felony trafficking offense if the amount exceeds a certain threshold.