By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - The No. 1 issue on the November ballot asks voters a simple question: Should Ohio spend $247 million over seven years to put drug offenders into treatment instead of jail?
The follow-up question, "What do we get for that money?" is a real humdinger.
Supporters of Issue 1 say voters should know that the money spent on treatment will save millions more in reduced prison, court, police, health care and welfare costs. Opponents warn budget cuts or a tax increases will be needed to pay for the recovering addicts if this passes.
But any prediction of Issue 1's bottom line for taxpayers is no more than an educated guess.
"All you can predict, at some core level, is that more people will go into treatment instead of prison," said Douglas A. Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in criminal sentencing. "After that, it's all assumptions."
One thing's for sure: Ohioans would pay $247 million, $19 million up front and $38 million a year for six years, to pay for expanded drug treatment.
That cost, mentioned prominently in the ballot summary voters will read Nov. 5, is driving down support among likely voters. Things are so bad, Issue 1 supporters are still wondering whether a television ad campaign can make a difference.
They claim Ohio would save $109 million in reduced prison and jail costs over the $247 million spent for drug treatment. That's more than $21 million in savings each year.
Opponents have no estimate
Opponents haven't offered their own estimate. An Enquirer analysis using figures state officials prefer shows Issue 1 might cost $9 million more than it would save.
"In the worst-case scenario it will pay for itself," said Ed Orlett, the Ohio campaign director for the drug treatment option. "We think it will do much, much more."
Leaders of a coalition that includes Gov. Bob Taft, mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, judges and drug treatment officials opposed to Issue 1 argue it's impossible to determine how much it would cost or save. That doesn't stop them from making their own predictions.
"We still feel that their projections are way overblown," said Jenny Camper, spokeswoman for Ohioans Against Unsafe Drug Laws. "We know it's going to cost the state."
Any analysis of Issue 1 is suspect because state records and estimates that can be obtained from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and the Ohio Sentencing Commission don't provide a clear picture of what would happen.
Issue 1 supporters and state prison officials, for example, agree that 2,592 nonviolent drug offenders are sent to prison each year. They disagree over how many would choose treatment over incarceration, how long they stay in prison and how much that costs.
Another estimate shows 1,249 nonviolent drug offenders would be diverted from Ohio's 88 county jails, but it is based on statistics that are 5 years old. No more recent figures are available and experts can't agree if more or fewer offenders are sent to jail now.
While supporters assume 1,521 parole violators would be sent into treatment, Fritz Rauschenberg, a researcher at the Ohio Sentencing Commission, estimates only a fraction -152 people a year - will get a judge's approval.
All these factors are critical to determining the state's bottom line if Issue 1 passes. In the end, voters have to decide which numbers they like best.
"There's a lot of wiggle room," Mr. Rauschenberg said. Scott Ehlers, research director for the National Campaign for New Drug Policies, the group supporting Issue 1 in Ohio, said he stands by his conclusion that at least $21 million will be saved annually.
"We think our estimate's low," he said.
Backers tout savings
Up to $224 million more in medical, welfare, police and court costs could be saved each year, Mr. Ehlers estimates, after treatment helps thousands of Ohioans overcome their addictions.
"The problem is, we can't calculate that," he said.
Mr. Orlett argues that the drug treatment amendment's opponents have no interest in doing their own cost-benefit analysis or sharing the results with voters.
"They have known from the beginning that Issue 1 saves money," Mr. Orlett said. "They can't say that because it blows their whole argument."
Several groups that support Ohioans Against Unsafe Drug Laws have put together studies that question key parts of the drug treatment amendment. They say that's enough to warn voters that Issue 1 is a big waste of money.
"If this issue passes, more programs will need to be cut or taxes raised to cover the new programs constitutionally guaranteed for drug offenders," warns a Sept. 4 statement kept on Ohioans Against Unsafe Drugs Laws website, www.unsafedruglaws.com.
Opponents also say there is no way to predict how the legal system would respond to Issue 1 if it passes. That response would have a lot to do with how much the state saves or spends.
Leaders of the Ohio Judicial Conference, an Issue 1 opponent, say virtually no nonviolent drug offenders are being sent to prison now - despite state statistics showing 2,592 new prison inmates each year.
A study of 123 Dayton-area people who were sent to prison on simple drug possession charges in 2001 shows 122 had prior felony convictions, faced multiple charges at trial or had drug trafficking charges reduced to possession counts because of plea bargains.
Madison County Judge Robert Nichols, who helped put together that study for the commission, said the study shows judges send drug offenders to prison only if there is a good reason. He said that casts a cloud over how many offenders would be diverted from prison if Issue 1 passes.
"I believe that if someone is involved in trafficking, his case will never be reduced to (drug) possession, as it may be now," Judge Nichols said. "That would allow the offender to elect to get into treatment."
A separate study of Issue 1 done by the Stark County Common Pleas Court also questions whether the $38 million a year the state would have to set aside for expanded drug treatment is enough.
Without offering any estimates, it warns counties would have to dig into their own pockets to pay the extra administrative costs needed to put drug offenders into treatment and other support programs mandated by the amendment.
Mr. Orlett dismissed those arguments, saying courts can easily cover their expenses through the court fees offenders must pay.
"Courts have provisions for providing these kinds of services right now, he said. "There's nothing keeping courts from passing on court costs to the offender. Courts do pretty good jobs of eventually getting around to collecting those costs."
Mr. Berman said Issue 1 is so complex that an accurate assessment of its impact may be impossible, even years after it passes.
"It will change the way police and prosecutors will pursue drug offenders," Mr. Berman said. "That makes it difficult for anyone to predict what would happen next."
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