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Ohio Enacts Criminal Justice Reform in 2020

The changes were the result of four bills signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine. He called House Bill 1 the most significant amongst the reforms. That bill broadens the use of diversion for persons charged with certain criminal charges if they complete drug or alcohol treatment programs. It also makes it easier for thousands of Ohioans to seal their conviction records and reduces incarceration due to technical violations of probation.

“There is broad consensus in this country that people who commit crimes—non-violent offenses—because the fact that they’re an addict, we all want to see them succeed. We want them to get clean, stay clean, and be good members of society,” said DeWine, a former prosecutor and state attorney. “There is broad consensus that if they can get clean and on a pathway, we don’t want to tag them with a felony conviction.”

DeWine signed other bills to reduce “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions. “Again, we have broad consensus that we shouldn’t be having those,” said DeWine. “Once a person has served their time or served their probation, probably they should be able to move on with their lives.”

House Bill 263, dubbed the Fresh Start Act, removes barriers to occupational licenses for persons with criminal records. Under that law, licensing boards cannot consider nonviolent, nonsexual offenses that occurred more than five years ago, or ten years previous for fiduciary licenses. Boards are prohibited from enacting “blanket bans” and they must spell out what convictions would disqualify someone from a license.

Senate Bill 68 will help people from falling into the “DMV cycle of death” that starts with a driver’s license suspension and forces a choice of driving on a suspended license or losing employment. Under this new law, people who cannot afford to pay for driver license reinstatement can perform community service instead. The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles reported that 1.1 million Ohioans had their license suspended in 2017.

Finally, Senate Bill 256 abolished life without parole for offenders who were under 18 at the time of their crime. It also set timeliness for parole eligibility for juvenile offenders serving extended terms. The Bill’s sponsor, former state senator Peggy Lehner, testified during hearings that youths’ brains do not develop fully until they are 25 and they have a unique opportunity for rehabilitation. “It is not fair to punish a child in the same way as an adult because a child is still developmentally immature,” Lehner said.

The number and scope of the criminal justice reform for the 2020 session was called “remarkable” by Kevin Werner of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. 



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