Ohio Turns to Addiction Treatment Over Incarceration

Last Updated: October 26, 2022

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A significant amount of people incarcerated in the United States are convicted for drug-related offenses. Since the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses in the United States rose from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017. According to the Department of Corrections, drug abuse is responsible for the greatest group of conviction offenses.

Another complex issue relates to the number of people who will return to prison for another drug-related offense after completing their original sentence. A review of recidivism in 15 states of the United States showed that 25% of people had another incarceration within 3 years for technical violations, including a positive drug test. Convictions and criminal records can greatly interfere with a person’s ability to gain employment and rejoin society following their release from prison.

Due to the overcrowded prisons and the financial burden placed on states, there has been considerable debate as to how cost-effective the practice is for dealing with nonviolent offenders with addictions. Studies conducted by prominent criminal justice research agencies in the United States show that drug treatment, services and programs are a more cost-effective way to manage drug offenders than incarceration. A meta-analysis study showed that incarcerated individuals who participated in community and counseling approaches were between 1.4 and 1.5 times more likely to not re-offend.

The criminal justice system has been exploring ways to reform public safety, including reducing long sentences, diverting resources from incarceration to prevention and treatment and alleviating barriers that make it difficult for people with criminal records to reenter society. Ohio is the latest state to work on criminal justice reform by broadening access to more treatment opportunities. In Ohio, 2,600 people are incarcerated for drug possession, including 1,600 people for low-level amounts.

On June 19, 2019, House Bill 1, named for the priority given to the measure, passed overwhelmingly 90-6. The bill, sponsored by Representative Paula Hudson Hicks and Representative Phil Plummer, seeks to help people manage addictions that result in criminal behavior. The bill is now awaiting Senate approval.

The bill creates more options for addiction treatment instead of an automatic criminal conviction for nonviolent offenders struggling with substance use. Judges and courts will continue to have discretion over which individuals would be offered treatment instead of conviction, with the option being unavailable for serious, violent or sexual offenses.

House Bill 1 also broadens opportunities to seal more criminal records, making it easier for people to reenter society following their release from prison. The bill would allow people to request that their records be sealed earlier in addition to allowing people with low-level crimes to seal their records, regardless of the number of convictions that they have.

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