Senate District 22
Larry Obhof
COLUMN: Finding Common Ground on Criminal Justice Reform
May 2, 2019
The following column written by Senate President Larry Obhof, a Republican from Medina County, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat from Franklin County, was published in The Columbus Dispatch.

Achieving bipartisan results might seem elusive in today’s political environment. Across the country, we find ourselves increasingly further apart on the political spectrum, often unwilling to budge from our partisan corners.

There nonetheless appears to be at least one major issue that both Republicans and Democrats have united on to make real reforms: criminal justice policy.

Consider, for example, the recent passage of the “First Step Act.” At a time when Washington appears bogged down with hyperpartisanship, President Trump and a bipartisan majority in Congress stood together to pass a bill that impacts federal sentencing laws. These efforts have been described as “the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.”

There are reasons why both Republicans and Democrats should care about criminal justice reforms. Criminal penalties serve a number of different, often interrelated purposes. These purposes include punishment, of course, but they also include rehabilitation and the overriding goal of protecting and increasing public safety. While it’s easy for policymakers to be “tough on crime” by ratcheting up penalties, that outcome is not always appropriate and it does not always enhance public safety.

We must be more purposeful in seeking rehabilitation for those who are incarcerated so they can rebuild their lives and not return to criminal behavior. Lower recidivism rates mean less crime and greater public safety. The Ohio legislature has made a concerted effort in recent years to reform the state’s sentencing laws.

We now have a presumption against jail time for most nonviolent low-level felonies. The state has expanded the availability of intervention in lieu of conviction for offenders with drug or alcohol problems and offers greater opportunities for individuals seeking community-based substance abuse treatment. In fact, a smarter and more pragmatic approach to crime has yielded a decrease in Ohio’s prison population and our recidivism rate is much lower than the national average.

But there’s more work to be done. That’s why we’re partnering to promote significant reforms to Ohio’s drug sentencing laws. Our plan is to reduce some low-level drug possession crimes to a misdemeanor, with a focus on rehabilitation and treatment instead of incarceration. We also are considering a retroactive application of newly reclassified crimes so that the barriers associated with felony convictions are eliminated and individuals in recovery have an easier path to success. Finally, we are re-examining our probation laws to include the practical understanding that people actively seeking treatment ought to be given access to help and a fair opportunity to succeed, rather than facing jail time for making honest attempts to recover while battling their addictions.

Increased opportunities for rehabilitation would give more people a chance to turn their lives around. And ultimately, these changes would lead to lower recidivism rates, resulting in less crime in our communities.

Lower crime rates help everyone. The redemption of an offender who overcomes an addiction or breaks a cycle of criminal activity is worthwhile on its own — but it’s even more significant because it makes our neighborhoods safer. That’s why Ohio policymakers are making criminal justice reform a priority in 2019.

The president and Congress did a good thing with the First Step Act. This new law shows that even when bipartisan policymaking seems tougher than ever, we can still work together. Now, it is up to the states to take the next step.

We can use criminal justice reform as a catalyst to rebuild obsolete bipartisan coalitions. Republicans and Democrats must work together if we’re going to tackle the major issues facing our country, and building alliances on criminal justice reform could be the bridge to help us get there.
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