Ohio GOP shepherds criminal justice overhaul into law

There are provisions on distracted driving, shaving time off prison sentences, and expunging records.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed into law a sweeping criminal justice overhaul that includes provisions to expand second chances for convicted criminals, including for minor marijuana infractions.

The roughly 1,000-page package was signed Tuesday, just ahead of the next legislative session. It was approved by the majority-Republican legislature last month after a midterm election cycle in which GOP candidates across the country campaigned on getting tougher on crime.

Sen. Nathan Manning (R), who led the effort to draft the package, said in an interview Wednesday that it was born of a desire to use data to ensure beneficial results.

“Sometimes when you say criminal justice reform, people will take that as soft on crime,” Manning said. “Really what it means is that we’re trying to be smarter on crime and look at the data, look at outcomes, and look at other states and what is working and what is not, and let’s be fiscally responsible with our money.”

Manning added that part of the goal of the package is to help people after they get out of prison because when people cannot find a job or housing due to a criminal record, they tend to end up as repeat offenders.

“You fall back into the traps that got you there in the first place or even worse,” Manning said. “So what we want to do is make sure that when people enter the prison system, they leave it a better person and a better place to succeed in life.”

At a press conference Tuesday, DeWine also acknowledged that the bill, which passed with a bipartisan vote, is vast and includes some provisions that typically don’t win the support of Republicans.

“I think the legislature should be complimented on the fact that they reached out to prosecutors, that they reached out to defense attorneys, that they reached out to law enforcement agencies,” DeWine said. “I want to thank the legislature for that inclusion. No bill is perfect. I think this is a good bill. And I think the public can be assured that everyone might not agree with every portion of the bill, but everyone during this process was heard.”

Here are some highlights of the package:

  • Law enforcement can pull over and ticket distracted drivers, which was a priority for DeWine. Under the law, which is similar to a 2018 Georgia law, police will issue warnings to drivers found violating the law for the first six months following the effective date. After this six-month grace period, law enforcement can issue citations. Penalties include a fine of up to $150 for a driver’s first offense and two points on their license unless a distracted driving safety course is completed. Increased penalties can occur if the driver is a repeat offender.
  • Incarcerated individuals can get up to 15% off their sentence if they participate in education, job training or other designated programs. Under current law, they can get reductions of up to 8% off their sentences.
  • A schedule is set up for those with criminal records to get them sealed and expunged. Records could be sealed after one year for most misdemeanors and fourth- or fifth-degree felonies and after three years for third-degree felonies. Records could be expunged, meaning deleted, after one year for misdemeanors and after 10 years for felonies. Anything eligible to be sealed, which is typically accessible to employers, is eligible to be expunged, but it would be up to a judge’s discretion.
  • Prosecutors and city law directors are permitted to apply for expungements of fourth-degree or minor misdemeanor drug offenses on citizens’ behalf. Many offenders do not even know that this is an option until they lose out on jobs or housing. The law also saves offenders the effort of having to hire a lawyer to sort through the process.
  • The “Good Samaritan” law is expanded to prohibit the prosecution of those caught with drug paraphernalia when authorities are called in the case of an overdose.
  • Fentanyl strips no longer count as illegal drug paraphernalia. The strips are used to detect the presence of fentanyl in different substances. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine and often added to heroin to increase its potency.
  • It makes it illegal for doctors and health care workers to use their own sperm to inseminate women seeking fertility treatment.
  • It makes strangulation a felony, which was a provision sought by anti-domestic-abuse groups. According to the Strangulation Training Institute, women who have been strangled by their partners are 750% more likely to be murdered than domestic violence victims who have not experienced strangulation, Sen. Nickie Antonio (D), who championed the provision, said on her website.