Representative Craig Riedel, Van Wert County Prosecutor Eva Yarger, and Van Wert County Sheriff Tom Riggenbach were among those in attendance during Monday's Town Hall who oppose Ohio State Issue 1, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)
Representative Craig Riedel, Van Wert County Prosecutor Eva Yarger, and Van Wert County Sheriff Tom Riggenbach were among those in attendance during Monday's Town Hall who oppose Ohio State Issue 1, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. (DHI Media/Kirsten Barnhart)

VAN WERT – Many local officials gathered on Monday in Council Chambers for a Town Hall meeting to make statements on what they feel would be the devastating effects of the passage of Ohio State Issue 1, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The Issue, if passed, would require sentence reductions of incarcerated individuals, except individuals incarcerated for murder, rape, or child molestation, by up to 25 percent if the individual participates in rehabilitative, work, or educational programming.

Van Wert County Prosecutor Eva Yarger, who spearheaded Monday’s event, noted that this piece of the amendment doesn’t just include drug offenses, but also could include violent offenders, and noted that there is no such crime as “child molestation;" instead those charges are titled as such charges as "gross sexual imposition" or "unlawful sexual conduct with a minor."

“This amendment is very poorly written,” said Yarger. “I could see defense attorneys arguing that because their clients aren’t convicted of child molestation, they should be allowed this reduction.”

Yarger added that the amendment is a disservice to victims.

Other wording in Issue 1 states that if passed, it would mandate that criminal offenses concerning drugs cannot be classified as a felony, but instead, only as a misdemeanor and would prohibit jail time for drug offenses for the first two offenses within two years.

All of the officials agreed that Issue 1 would put a strain on local law enforcement and the local courts, increase spending locally on already tight budgets, and argued that it would decrease the incentive for drug users to take advantage of rehabilitation services.

“Issue 1 will put individuals who should be sent to prison back into our communities,” said Van Wert County Sheriff Tom Riggenbach. “When these individuals are incarcerated, it would be in our county jail. This would increase our jail population, which increases our costs to operate the jail.”

Riggenbach said medical costs would rise at the jail and noted that the majority of the medical costs incurred currently at the jail are by inmates that are involved in drug activity.

“These costs should continue to be incurred at the State level when people are sentenced to prison, not by our local taxpayers,” said Riggenbach.

Van Wert Police Chief Joel Hammond echoed Riggenbach’s message and noted that local law enforcement has seen a large increase in drug-related crimes and that he does not believe the passage of Issue 1 will help reduce drug usage.

Judge Jill Straley and Chief Probation Officer Bruce Showalter expressed that by taking away the possibility of prison sentences, the Issue leaves little incentive for drug offenders to seek help.

“I’ve had parents beg me to incarcerate their children so that they know they are safe and that they are alive,” said Straley. “I’ve had individual defendants beg me to incarcerate them so that they don’t overdose. Sometimes incarceration is the only thing that has kept that person alive.”

Showalter added that programs like the Drug Court have been highly successful in keeping people sober while they are enrolled in the program; he stated that he firmly believes that many would not opt for rehabilitation programs if they didn’t have a prison sentence hanging over their head.

“Everybody wants treatment when their back is to the wall, but when their back is not to the wall, sometimes those decisions change,” said Showalter. “I believe that this proposed amendment is going to remove most of the incentives for treatment until that felony threshold is reached. It’s going to significantly increase the number of persons who are addicted.”

Showalter said his caseload would drop in the Common Pleas Court, but that the cases in the Municipal Court will be overwhelming.

“The removal of accountability makes everyone's [job in this room] more difficult,” said Law Director John Hatcher. “Without accountability, these people that need help will have a hard time getting it.”

Hatcher also argued that because Van Wert is a border county to Indiana, one unforeseen potential consequence may be that drug users in Indiana will traffic drugs to Van Wert where the offense is a lesser charge.

Straley added that drug possession is not a victimless crime and that it typically leads to other crimes such as shoplifting and domestic violence.

Other opponents of Issue 1 that were present were Ashley Koontz of Westwood, who also spoke on the lack of incentive for drug users to go to rehab if the Issue is passed, and Leslie Sowers of Children’s Services who noted that the amount of children taken from homes where a parent has a substance abuse issue has increased over the years. She noted that her agency sees fewer and fewer parents who are willing to take the necessary steps to keep their children on their own.

Many officials during the evening argued that the financial strain on the Court, County, and City budgets would become overwhelming.

Van Wert City Mayor Jerry Mazur said that in 2018 so far Van Wert City has spent $10,000 on drug overdoses with 28 first responder runs.

“Should Issue 1 pass in November we will see our law enforcement, legal services, and court system all be under severe financial strain,” said Mazur. “We could as well expect our fire department’s cost to rise exponentially.”

Mazur said that with the City’s already strained budget, the City is not prepared to have such an amendment pass. He also argued that the passage of Issue 1 would scare potential employers away from Ohio.

“Employers nationally are seeking good employees who are drug-free and willing to be on a job every day,” said Mazur. “Relaxing drug control would not be advantageous to employers.”

State Representative Craig Riedel was also present to discuss how the Issue, if passed, would be hard to reverse. While he said he does feel there need to be changes made to combat the drug epidemic, he doesn’t feel that those changes should be made as a Constitutional amendment.

“It takes away the ability of our elected judges to use their discretion when they're imposing penalties when someone is convicted of drug possession,” said Riedel. “It will handcuff the General Assembly; I won’t be able to pass a law that will undo it. The purpose of an elected General Assembly is to create and make the laws that we live by here in Ohio.”

Many of those in attendance criticized the issue for being funded by west cost billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, as well as Nicholas and Susan Pritzker and George Soros.

“It’s being driven by people who think they know better than we do and they don’t believe in our value system here in the Midwest,” said Riedel. “They don’t believe in our value system here in Ohio. The outcome of this would have a devastating long-term impact on our communities.”

Yarger, who welcomed questions following the statements by local officials, said that the meeting was proof that the legal system in Ohio cares about treatment options.

Other propositions on Issue 1 include a requirement that any available funding, based on projected savings, should be applied to state-administered rehabilitation programs and crime victim funds and to allow an individual convicted of a drug-related crime to ask a court to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor, regardless of whether the individual has completed their sentence.

"If this issue passes we're looking at future lost generations," stated Mazur.