Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Taft, others object to drug-law change

By Spencer Hunt, shunt@enquirer.com
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Ohio voters may get to make a decision in November that could reshape how the state deals with drug offenders.

        The Ohio Campaign for New Drug Policies wants voters to change the state constitution to force judges to let eligible nonviolent drug offenders choose treatment over prison.

    About the initiative

    The Ohio Drug Treatment Initiative is a proposed constitutional amendment expected to be on the statewide ballot Nov. 5.

    • The measure would provide treatment instead of prosecution or jail time for people charged with illegal possession or use of a controlled substance.

    • Treatment would be an option for any non-violent, first- or second-time offender.

    • An offender would not be eligible for treatment if convicted of or imprisoned for a violent felony within five years of committing the current offense; or if, in addition to the drug offense, the person had been convicted of or had pending charges for trafficking, manufacturing or selling drugs; a violent felony, or a misdemeanor involving violence; or illegally operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

    • The type of addiction treatment and other rehabilitative services required for each individual would be established by an addiction professional. Treatment could last up to 12 to 18 months, depending upon the recommendation of the addiction expert.

    • The judge and an independent drug treatment expert would monitor each offender's progress. If program violations or relapses occur, the judge could intensify the treatment program or impose various sanctions on the person, including removal from the program and jail time.

    • Treatment programs would be paid for with $19 million in startup costs and, beginning July 1, 2003, annual appropriations from the state General Revenue Fund of $38 million per year, adjusted for inflation, for six years.

    • A state agency that already licenses and pays for drug treatment programs would implement this initiative. The agency would distribute funds to counties and regional governments to pay for local treatment costs and related expenses.

    The money behind the movement

Three of America's wealthiest businessmen have spent millions of dollars to bankroll referendums to change drug laws, permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and tighten rules on property forfeitures in drug cases.

    The three:

    • George Soros is president and chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC, a private investment management firm that serves as principal adviser to the Quantum Group of Funds.

    Mr. Soros chairs the Open Society Institute and is the founder of a network of philanthropic organizations that are active in more than 50 countries.

    • John Sperling is chairman of the Apollo Group Inc., the holding company of the University of Phoenix, the for-profit school for working adults he started in the 1970s.

    He sponsored the research that produced the first-ever cloned cat in February.

    • Peter Lewis is chairman of the board of the Progressive Corp. of Mayfield Village, Ohio, the nation's fourth-largest auto insurer.

    He helped establish the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and chairs the board of trustees of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York. Last year he gave his alma mater, Princeton University, $60 million for a science library.

        The proposed referendum reflects the belief that the nation's “war on drugs” is a failure. Backed by three wealthy businessmen, proponents have already won similar campaigns in Arizona and California, and helped pass drug-reform initiatives in 15 other states.

        While these successes and public opinion polls suggest a groundswell of support for treatment over incarceration, Gov. Bob Taft hopes to convince voters it's wrong for Ohio.

        “This amendment is flawed, it's full of loopholes and it's unsafe for Ohio,” Mr. Taft said Monday, standing in front of a bipartisan group of government, police and drug-treatment officials. “We must oppose this.”

        The governor, along with First Lady Hope Taft and Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, launched a statewide effort to combat the drug treatment initiative.

        The proposed Ohio Drug Treatment Initiative would let first- and second-time drug offenders get treatment instead of facing criminal trials. Treatment would not be an option for violent felons, convicted drunken drivers or drug dealers.

        The amendment would force the state to spend $19 million this fiscal year and another $38 million over the next six years to pay for the required expanded treatment programs.

        The proposal is the collective brainchild of New York financier George Soros, University of Phoenix founder John Sperling and Peter B. Lewis, who leads Cleveland-based Progressive Corp., one of the nation's largest auto insurers.

        These billionaires spend their own money on their campaigns. The 2000 California campaign, for example, spent $4.2 million. Voters approved it with 61 percent of the votes cast.

        The cost of the Ohio campaign could reach $3 million.

        “This may be sponsored by wealthy individuals but it is readily adopted by local people,” said Dave Fratello, political director of the national Campaign for New Drug Policies.

        Mr. Fratello predicted his organization will collect more than 600,000 petition signatures by August, nearly double the 335,422 needed to get the amendment on the November ballot.

        “Certainly jail doesn't cure addiction,” Mr. Fratello said. “We have enough experience by now to see a new direction is needed.”

        One year after California's Proposition 36 took effect, statistics show roughly a third of the offenders skipped out on their treatment programs.

        But Superior Court Judge Peggy Fulton Hora of Hayward, Calif., said 50 percent of offenders never complete their treatment programs.

        “The billionaires who are behind this have a misunderstanding of the criminal population,” Ms. Fulton Hora said.

        In Ohio, Mr. Taft and state officials say the proposed amendment would ruin the state's drug court system and actually help repeat drug offenders hide their addictions and escape justice.

        They point to provisions that would let offenders clear their records after they complete treatment plans. They also object to a 90-day maximum the amendment would impose on drug possession convictions. Ohio laws allow for sentences of up to 18 months.

        Lew Hollinger, chairperson of the southwest Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said roads and highways could become more dangerous if offenders are not in jail.

        “MADD believes they should get treatment with incarceration,” he said.

        Warren County Sheriff Tom Ariss said Ohio employers would never know about prospective employees' drug history if they are able to expunge their records.

        Mr. Taft and Mr. Ford said Ohio's 48 drug courts, which already offer treatment programs to offenders, would lose their power to enforce that treatment. Mr. Ford said the amendment would take away a drug court judge's power to jail offenders who don't go to treatment.

        “Ohio's drug court judges will lose their best tool,” Mr. Ford said. “We need to let the drug courts work.”

        Hamilton County's drug court boasts a 91 percent success rate, one of the highest in the country. It has graduated more than 800 people with only 74 re-offenders.

        Despite that, Edward Orlett, a former state lawmaker and lobbyist leading the Ohio Campaign for New Drug Initiatives, said drug courts can't handle the case load.

        “They were able to process between 1,500 and 1,700 clients. Last year in Ohio there were 6,300 who were charged with felony drug abuse,” he said. “We're not even serving 25 percent of those eligible for treatment. We can do better than that in Ohio.”

       Nathan Leaf contributed to this report.


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