On Election Day, Ohioans will vote on a ballot initiative designed to help decriminalize nonviolent drug use and to divert millions of taxpayer dollars — currently spent pursuing an outdated and failed war on drugs — into drug treatment programs. By challenging perceptions of drug users, Issue 1 upends racist assumptions the nation has accepted for decades.
The proposed constitutional amendment will decrease Ohio’s prison population by turning nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors that don’t require prison time, allow those with existing convictions to be eligible for those to be reclassified as misdemeanors, and prohibit prison time for people who violate probation for noncriminal offenses (such as being late for an appointment), among other humane policy shifts.
Ultimately, Issue 1 pushes back on draconian drug sentencing enacted at the height of the crack cocaine explosion of the ’80s and ’90s that led to disproportionate incarceration rates for black people, the poor and the undereducated. For the moment, it places the state at the epicenter of the ongoing struggle between U.S. citizens and lawmakers over the inherent racism of national drug policy that deemed black Americans expendable.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Ohio’s state prison population is around 52,000 (roughly the size of Cleveland suburb Lakewood). Although black people represent only 12% of the population, 43% of the state’s prison population is black. By contrast, while whites represent 81% of Ohio’s population, they represent 52% of the prison population.
These statistics aren’t altogether new. Ohio’s prison population topped 45,000 in 1996 and has remained above that level ever since. The vast racial disparities persist relatively unchanged. In 2004, not long after the publication of my book The Hip-Hop Generation, which documents the ways targeted policing in black communities coupled with harsh sentencing became a defining variable for a generation of black Americans, the Nation asked me, along with Walter Cronkite, George McGovern, Lani Guinier and other thought leaders, to each discuss a peoples-driven issue that should dominate the Democratic Party’s platform.
“Mandatory minimums disproportionately affect African-Americans [who] represent 45% of the U.S. prison population,” I wrote. “The Democratic Party should advocate the repeal of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws at the state level as well as those provisions under the federal 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the 1994 Crime Act.”
Coming of age in Long Island, New York, in the ’80s, I witnessed firsthand friends and relatives “caught up” by policing that targeted petty dealers and users in majority black communities, while ignoring college students, and suburban and rural Americans who, studies show, use illegal drugs at the same rate.
“Caught up” was an expression that emerged at the time, a catch-all phrase for the collateral damage of having a felony conviction. In short, once you are in the system, it is nearly impossible to avoid having its ramifications follow you in pursuit of housing, jobs, education and more for decades. These dynamics, commonplace in the state that birthed the drug laws, quickly became the national tough-on-crime blueprint.
However, after years of heavy lifting from opponents who refuse to accept a two-tiered system of justice as business as usual, in 2010 a breakthrough came with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. Mandatory minimum sentences were repealed for the first time for federal offenders convicted of possession of crack cocaine. Additionally the 100-to-1 ratio disparity of crack to powder cocaine was changed to 18 to 1. Crack cocaine cases in federal court dropped by 50% as a result.
But even as this leap forward underscored the extent to which U.S. drug policy was weighted with racism, it only applied to the federal prison system (a relatively small fraction of the nation’s incarceration population) and a gap remained that still more severely punished crack cocaine over powder cocaine users.
It was among former President Barack Obama’s campaign promises that fell short, even as, more than any president in history, he never wavered in insisting that we should end racial disparities and sentencing practices that punished users.
“We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing,” the president said in an interview with David Remnick in 2014. “It’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
This shifting discourse created leverage for grassroots activists fighting for change at the state level. Similar ballot initiatives passed in California in 2014 and Oklahoma in 2016. Both report decreases in the prison population.
The frontline now comes to my current home state, Ohio, where organizations like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, Ohio NAACP, Ohio Justice and Policy Center, and Khnemu Lighthouse in partnership with the Alliance for Safety and Justice see the possibilities.
Issue 1 is not a panacea. The legacy of racial disparities and inequalities fostered by drug policy persists — from the U.S. Census bureau’s recent decision to continue to count inmates in districts where they are incarcerated, rather than their hometowns, to redistricting maps drawn in states like Ohio that strategically places 91% of the state’s prison population in Republican districts, when most of their actual hometowns are in Democratic ones.
Likewise, a fierce debate rages on both sides of the aisle that has pushed visions of equality, justice and democracy to the brink, with both Democratic and Republican judges lecturing prospective jury pools to vote against the amendment and some voters questioning whether the change of heart for drug users is merely driven by the skin color of those most affected in Ohio by today’s opioid crisis.
No matter the outcome, what is certain is that Issue 1 is a litmus test for how far the Ohio electorate has evolved in its willingness to dismantle public policy solutions that punish blacks more severely at a time when the nation is more racially polarized than at any point in the last half century.