Ohio Proposal Would Allow Heroin Dealers To Avoid Prison

A provision in the state's budget proposal would focus its efforts on monitoring and rehabilitation

Drugs are prepared to be used by a user addicted to heroin. — Getty Images
Jun 12, 2017 at 2:17 PM ET

A provision in the latest bill for Ohio’s budget that would allow heroin dealers to avoid prison time has led to concerns about whether the law would be an effective tool in the state’s ongoing opioid struggle.

As Ohio continues to address the crippling challenges presented by the opioid epidemic, the budget bill’s provision, named the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP), would keep non-violent offenders out of prison. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported that this potential change would apply to heroin trafficking, which is a fifth-degree felony in Ohio. Instead, the program would shift $60 million to local communities throughout the state, using the funding to focus on monitoring and rehabilitating low-level offenders. So far, eight counties are participating in a pilot TCAP program based on the provision.

The proposed provision was criticized by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, a Republican candidate for the state’s attorney general race next year. In a letter sent to the chairman of the state’s Senate Finance Committee last week, Yost said that the idea of keeping heroin traffickers out of prison would be an “unintended consequence of a complex idea.”

“Street-level heroin dealers are the entry point to work up the distribution chain,” Yost wrote in his letter. “To get the ‘big fish,’ you’ve got to get the little ones.”

Others, however, see the provision as a step in the right direction. Gary Mohr, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, cited a 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice that noted the cost and ineffectiveness associated with the incarceration of low-level offenders.

“This program gives us the best opportunity to truly turn things around,” Mohr told the Plain-Dealer. “I think this is a potential turning point in criminal justice.”

The proposed program comes at a time when the state’s opioid epidemic is seemingly becoming deadlier by the day. Last year, more than 4,100 Ohio residents, an average of 11 people a day, died of unintentional drug overdoses. It’s timing also comes a month after Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally pushed for federal prosecutors to proceed with mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases.

But even despite the state’s opioid troubles, Yost, the candidate for Ohio attorney general, remains opposed on letting heroin dealers evade prison time.

“We need to tap the breaks on this and be careful and deliberate,” Yost said to Cleveland.com. “Let’s pull it out [of the budget bill] and fix the things that need fixing.”

Ohio lawmakers will have until June 30 to pass a two-year budget.