A sweeping reform of Ohio’s criminal-justice laws, potentially producing shorter sentences and fewer people going to prison for nonviolent drug crimes, has the backing of a diverse, bipartisan coalition.

Top legislative leaders, tax reformer Grover Norquist, an American Civil Liberties Union official, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, were among those who discussed plans on Thursday for a top-to-bottom overhaul of Ohio’s lengthy and cumbersome criminal code.

“No one is here to say today that criminals should not be punished. We are here to say that not all crimes or criminals are created equal,” Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said at a Statehouse press conference. “This is not about being hard or soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime.”

No specifics were announced. Exactly how the criminal code will be overhauled will be up to the 24-member Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee appointed by the legislature. Faber said he wants the committee to “swing for the fences” for big picture reform ideas. But the Senate leader balked when asked about revising parole standards for current inmates and marijuana legalization.

Nevertheless, the consensus of speakers was that reform goals are to reduce the prison population by incarcerating fewer nonviolent drug offenders and people with mental-health issues, eliminate mandatory flat sentences, and remove barriers for ex-offenders to return to society.

Visual evidence of Ohio’s bulky criminal code — five thick law books — was on a stand next to the speaker’s podium.

Speaker after speaker criticized the burdensome incarceration rate in Ohio and the U.S., the highest in the world.

“Locking people in cages is extreme and dehumanizing,” said Allison Holcomb, head of the ACLU’s national Smart Justice program. “This is the top priority for us.”

Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, said he views reform from an economic standpoint. “We have too many people in prison and not the right people in prison,” he said. That is costing taxpayers far too much, he said.

Kerman, now living in Columbus, came to public attention as author of her real-life story that led to the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black.

“I’m fairly confident I’m the only person up here with a felony,” Kerman said opening her remarks. Following her release from a Connecticut prison on a drug-related money laundering charge, she became an advocate for sentencing and parole reform. She is teaching writing to inmates at two Ohio prisons.

Kerman said what Ohio does could provide a “roadmap” for other states struggling with the same issues.

Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, who spent 27 years as a Cincinnati police officer, said reforms have been “long in coming.”

“I found myself picking up repeat offenders over and over again, then sending them back to the penitentiary,” Thomas said. He said the state must think outside of the box about alternatives to locking up so many people at great cost to taxpayers and the community.

Prisons director Gary Mohr said in a statement that he looks forward to working with the committee and “building upon the already significant progress Ohio has made with criminal justice reform.” He said his agency “continues to be a leader in criminal justice best practices, and our budget invests millions of dollars back into Ohio’s communities to help treat addiction and divert low-level, nonviolent offenders from prison.”

In a meeting with the Dispatch editorial board, Faber said the idea of legalizing marijuana should not be considered by the committee because the vast majority of marijuana-related criminal charges are misdemeanors that don’t involve prison time.

Faber said he wants recommendations from the committee within 18 months and he wants the panel to draft legislation that can be placed into one bill.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices
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