Ohio’s Fresh Start: An Alternative Approach to Drug-Related Offenses
Keller Blackburn, Athens County Prosecutor
The objective of the Ohio Fresh Start (OFS) proposal is to increase treatment opportunities for those addicted to illegal narcotics while still protecting the public. Keeping dangerous drugs as a felony allows the existing treatment, probation, and criminal justice infrastructure to continue to provide services while expanding those services and removing prison as a sentencing option. Further, because most low-level felonies stem from addiction, to truly correct the problem those cases must also be treated as drug-addicted offenses. A second focus of this proposal is to reduce the collateral consequence of addiction offenses so that individuals can receive treatment but not suffer after they enter recovery from lost opportunities. This proposal is based on two overlying approaches, (1) reducing addiction drug offenses and (2) providing a multi-faceted sentencing plan that allows prosecutors and judges leeway in meting out sentences that merit the offense.
Addressing Addiction Drug Offenses:
The cornerstone of Ohio Fresh Start creates a new offense, Possession of Harmful Drugs.
Possession of Harmful Drugs will be an unclassified felony, punishable by five (5) years of community control, jail sanctions of no more than 45 days at a time, residential treatment, and Community-Based Correctional Facilities not to exceed a total incarceration of 12 months. There shall be no license suspension for this offense.
An individual, upon an admission or finding of guilt, can be placed on Community Control, in a Diversion Program or an Intervention in Lieu of Conviction program, yet still be subject to all of the above limitations unless this is the third offense within two years, in which case the offense shall be a Felony of the fourth degree.
Possession of Harmful Drugs will include the use, possession, sale, gift, purchase, attempt to purchase, offer to sell, or package to sell, up to:
- Heroin—up to 1 grams or 10-unit doses
- Marijuana—over 500 g-1KG (less than 500g joins current M1)
- Cocaine—up to 10 grams
- LSD—up to 15-unit doses or 1.5 gram
- Fentanyl—less than .5 grams
- Schedule 1 or 2—up to Bulk
- Schedules 3, 4, and 5—bulk to 5X bulk
If an individual is convicted of the offense, the offense is expungable one (1) year after successful completion of a treatment plan or community control. After three (3) offenses within two (2) years, the crime becomes a felony of the fourth (4th) degree.
With the approval of the County Prosecutor a Municipal or County Court may retain jurisdiction of Possession of Harmful Drugs.
PROTECTING CHILDREN: Committing the offense of Possession of Harmful Drugs while having a juvenile in their care and/or vicinity shall be a criminal offense of Endangering Children.
STOPPING INTERSTATE TRAFFICKING: There shall be created an offense of transporting illegal drugs across state lines, prohibiting the transport or causing to be transported across state lines dangerous drugs without a prescription if the amount is over bulk, as a felony of the third (3rd) degree and if the drug involved exceeds more than five (5) times bulk, a felony of the first (1st) degree.
POSSESSION WITH INTENT TO DISTRIBUTE: Anyone in Possession of more than the maximum amount of drugs listed in the Possessing Harmful Drugs Offense is presumed to be in possession with intent to distribute, and can be charged pursuant to Ohio Revised Code 2925.03(B). A defendant can overcome the presumption by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the drugs were only for the offender’s personal use.
NO MANDATORY TIME FOR POSSESSION: With the creation of possession with the intent to distribute standard mandatory sentences should be removed from Drug Possession Offenses in R.C. 2925.11. This will allow discretion for Judge’s and Prosecutor’s when dealing with offenders,
Amend the purposes and principles of sentencing to provide that the overriding principle in sentencing the offender is to protect the public, deter future crime by the offender and others, and provide the offender with the necessary treatment to reduce the likelihood of future crime, while not diminishing the seriousness of the offense committed by the offender.
To achieve this, individuals convicted of drug-related crimes will be sentenced to hybrid sentences involving community control or alternative dispositions for drug related crimes and prison or community control for unrelated offenses. These sentences should include the following adaptations to current sentences:
- All first-time Felony 4 and/or 5 offenders, not a sex offense or crime of violence, that the offender committed due to addiction shall be sentenced to a treatment plan and should be given an opportunity at an alternative disposition in lieu of conviction.
- Municipal and County Courts shall recommend or provide treatment as a part of dispositions in criminal cases where indicated or the case is a drug related crime.
- Prosecutorial Diversion under Ohio Revised Code Section 2935 and other alternative disposition programs may use jail as a sanction and a Community-Based Correctional Facility upon order of the court.
- All inmates sentenced to more than five years in prison who have completed one-half of their stated prison term, in addition to all mandatory time, may be eligible for to apply for judicial release if they have completed specific programs while incarcerated.
- The Department of Corrections (DRC) may place any offender with less than twelve (12) months of a remaining prison term into a Community-Based Correctional Facility.
- Felony convictions defined as drug related crimes may be expungable one (1) year after the completion of a treatment plan at the discretion of a judge.
- Prosecutor Diversion Programs, Drug Courts, and other alternate disposition programs shall receive $750 per offender admitted to the program from the DRC Budget that shall be used for programming and prevention.
- The State shall provide to Counties $50,000.00 per year plus $3 per citizen in 2019 and $8 per citizen in 2019/2020 for grants to address addiction/treatment/prevention from the savings of DRC Budget.
- The court may retroactively apply these changes to offenders if the court finds the adjustment appropriate based on the offense committed and any agreement of the parties.
The Ohio Fresh Start initiative will provide judicial options not currently available to prosecutors and judges that function to bring the offender back as a valuable member of society. OFS seeks to balance the needs of the public with the best treatment programs for offenders cited with Possession of Harmful Drugs.
 Drug related crimes are cases in which the parties stipulate, the court finds, or by a showing of the preponderance of evidence that the offense was committed due to the offender’s use of harmful drugs or by the offenders attempt to obtain dangerous drugs or funding to purchase dangerous drugs. If the offence results in serious physical harm to a victim it cannot be treated as a drug related offense. If the offense is a crime of violence it is not expungable.
Fresh Start is a program to address the needs of our citizens who are dealing with addiction. Drug addiction is the leading cause of felonious activity in Athens County. Reducing the number of drug users will work to reduce the amount of crime. There is not a single answer to the problem of drugs in our community. Fresh Start seeks to take a comprehensive approach by promoting and enhancing successful community efforts identified by my office and Fresh Start partners. Fresh Start is guided by performance-based assessments to determine what works best, and what is lacking, in our community efforts to combat drugs.
Prosecutor Blackburn’s Vivitrol Program for opiate addicts and Prosecutor Blackburn’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Meth and cocaine are two approaches being used by the office to combat addiction.
Athens County Empowerment (A.C.E.) Program
The Athens County Empowerment (A.C.E.) is a program initiated and run through the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. A.C.E. is a rehabilitation program offered to certain individuals who have been charged with low-level offences and have no prior felony criminal record. Participants must plead guilty, however the plea is held in abeyance pending successful completion of the A.C.E. Program. If successfully completed, the participant’s case is dismissed, and they have no record, while failure to complete will result in a return to court for sentencing.
The A.C.E. program is a maximum of two years, but can be successfully completed after a minimum of one year. Participants can successfully complete the program by paying all costs, fees and any restitution associated with their case, participating in community service and participating in treatment and/or training programs to deal with alcohol abuse, drug abuse, job training, or other needs. Program Coordinators maintain contact with participants and work with each independently, understanding that every situation may differ from another.
The success of the A.C.E. Program lies with participants, giving them the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, and for their future. The Athens County Prosecutor’s Office is proud of the success of the A.C.E. Program, as well as all of the participants who have successfully completed it.
There are thousands of Ohioans released from prison every year. My office has a role to play in reducing the barriers to successful reentry in Athens County. Stopping the cycle of incarceration by helping former prisoners rebuild their lives will reduce crime and the costs incurred by taxpayers, while improving our community. My office will be an active participant in the Athens County Reentry Task Force which is engaged in addressing housing, transportation, re-employment and other barriers to reentry. I will also work to promote awareness of existing community programs that can help reduce recidivism. For example, we must recognize and deal with the role addiction plays in recidivism in Ohio and address that challenge through programs like Fresh Start.
Prosecutor Blackburn’s Vivitrol Program
- The Vivitrol Program is administered and run through the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office with the partnership of Health Recovery Services, Hopewell Health Centers, The Athens County Court of Common Pleas, local 317 Board, SEORJ, and Athens Adult Parole Authority.
- Participants are opiate based addicts or alcohol dependent.
- Vivitrol (Naltrexone) is prescribed for the prevention of relapse to opioid dependence, following opioid detoxification.
- Participants do not have to be adjudicated or convicted of any crimes to take advantage of this program; Prosecutor Blackburn believes all individuals who want help, should get help, and overcome their addiction.
- Potential participants are screened and qualified individuals enter into an agreement to participate with the Prosecutor’s Office. Participants then meet with addiction professionals to determine the best available option to combat their addiction.
- Participants must maintain sober living 10-14 days prior to Vivitrol treatment. This means absolutely no drugs or alcohol of any kind prior to receiving treatment.
- Staff will assist and motivate the participant through this difficult process and can locate detoxification facilities.
- Staff will monitor progress with Health Recovery Services (HRS) or Hopewell while participants navigate the Vivitrol treatment program.
- Through HRS or Hopewell, participants will receive treatment also including individual and group counseling.
“The program is designed to increase treatment opportunities in hopes of reducing the collateral consequences stemming from opiate addiction, including crime, unemployment, brain damage, and death.”
~ Athens County Prosecutor, Keller J. Blackburn