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Butler County judges make rare proclamations to oppose Issue 1

Ohio judges officially are in non-partisan offices, so it’s rare they speak about election-related topics. Issue 1 is proving to be different.

This week, several Butler County judges — from the 12th District Court of Appeals to the municipal courts — voiced their opposition to Issue 1.

A MUST READ: Cutting through the hype: What Issue 1 would mean in Ohio

Their opposition comes after Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor also said she is adamantly opposed to Issue 1 and Butler County’s sheriff, coroner and prosecutor also opposed the proposed constitutional amendment that would change Ohio law to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison and promote more treatment of drug addiction.

“The passage of Issue 1 has the potential to make our neighborhoods less safe with the possibility that drug-addicted individuals who refuse to comply with treatment dictates, knowing that their non-compliance with those treatment dictates will have little consequence,” the Butler County judges wrote in a statement issued Thursday.

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The Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, prosecutors, corrections officials, and other criminal justice professionals, however, endorsed Issue 1 earlier this week.

“The justice system can’t function as intended and keep people safe when such a high volume of drug cases overwhelms the dockets,” former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Carter Stewart said. “I think anyone working in courtrooms or corrections facilities would agree that we need to focus our energy on the most serious crimes. People who use drugs — and many who sell them — need treatment, so pushing them through the system isn’t getting at the root of their drug use or making it any easier for the system to take legitimately dangerous perpetrators off the streets.”

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth speaks out against Issue 1

Butler County judges said they understand treatment is critical to the opioid epidemic, but believe the constitutional amendment will make it more difficult to get people into treatment.

“Many times it is the threat of prison that ultimately forces an individual to get the help they so desperately need,” the judges wrote. “Issue 1 would remove the consequence of incarceration if an individual does not comply with treatment orders, benefiting those defendants that could care less about treatment, court orders or the public.”

Stewart told the Journal-News the dearth of treatment facilities statewide helped convince him the legal change is necessary.

The local judges said they agree with the “spirit” of the amendment, but said it should have been crafted at the legislative level and included input from people “on the front lines.”

Plus, to undo potential ill effects of the measure would require another constitutional amendment that would be a lengthy process, the judges said.

Something else the Butler County judges said is troubling is that the proposed amendment would allow for someone possessing 19.99 grams of fentanyl — reportedly enough to kill 10,000 people — to be charged with a misdemeanor, meaning the person .would have to be convicted three times in 24 months before a judge could consider a jail sentence.

Stewart agreed it is unfortunate that provision made it into the amendment language, but said there are other ways for this issue to be handled.

“Those are trafficking amounts and there are other alternative charges that can be used in those situations,” he said.

To that the local bench says: “Issue 1 is an all or nothing proposition. While some people may say they like some aspects of Issue 1 but not others, if passed, it all comes in.”

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