Vote Yes on 1: Why We Must Treat and Not Jail Addiction

By Malcolm Jenkins and Austin Mack

Mass incarceration is the most urgent civil rights issue of our time. America’s stubborn commitment to the failed war on drugs, tough-on-crime policies, and lengthy prison sentences has resulted in the caging of a breathtaking number of black and brown people. These policies have not made us safer, and they have not addressed the underlying causes of crime, such as poverty, mental illness, a lack of access to health care, and relatedly, substance abuse. Instead, these policies have ripped apart families and neighborhoods, leaving a blight on communities of color that will last for decades unless we immediately reverse course.

These ineffective policies have been on full display in Ohio, which has an incarceration rate higher than any other country in the world (other than the United States). It has the fourth highest total prison population in the U.S. and its prisons sit at 130 percent capacity. Ohio’s zest for incarceration is costly — the prison’s budget is $1.8 billion a year. While other states are starting to reduce both their crime rates and prison populations through evidence-based reforms, Ohio has largely stayed the course of mass incarceration, cramming more and more people into eight by ten cells. The population is projected to keep growing, costing Ohioans more and more.

But this November, we have a chance to change direction and be a leader in the criminal justice reform movement. On the ballot is State Issue 1, which will convert many crimes of addiction from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of going to state prison, people convicted of low-level drug possession will receive treatment, supervision, or county jail. They would not be saddled with a felony conviction, which can mean a lifetime of barriers to employment, housing, and more. Instead, they would have access to critical treatment. And Ohio would invest the money saved in people — in badly needed treatment and in services for crime victims.

This will make us safer. Prosecutors and law enforcement can focus on more serious offenses like drug trafficking, which remains a felony. Meanwhile, people who suffer from addiction can stay out of prison and receive the treatment and services they need. In the long run, this will mean more jobs. And more jobs means less crime. Voting in favor of Issue 1 is, in this way, a no brainer.

Issue 1 is also smart for Ohioans’ pockets. It costs $67.84 a day to incarcerate someone in Ohio, or nearly $25,000 a year. Yet almost half of Ohio’s prison population is there for a nonviolent drug offense or a probation violation. This is an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars that could be better invested in things like treatment and education. If passed, Issue 1 will dramatically reduce the dollars wasted on locking people away.

And Issue 1 makes for humane policy by giving people a second chance and hope that tomorrow can be better than today. It encourages the use of rehabilitation programs by cutting prison time for those who complete them. And by diverting money from prison into treatment, it is an investment in our communities and our future.

Righting the harsh injustices of the failed war on drugs is long overdue. Drug arrests and prosecutions consistently affect black communities at an alarming rate that is far greater than white communities. In 2006, for example, police arrested black Ohioans at nearly 6 times the rate of white Ohioans. 85 percent of those arrests were for use, or possession, offenses. Issue 1 can’t right our past wrongs, but it can prevent some of them from happening in the future.

As student athletes (and a proud alum) at the best university in this country and in one of the greatest states, we know Ohioans want what is fair for all communities. Some use fear mongering to divide us, but we know Ohioans know better than that. We can do better — we can lead in reform, rather than fall behind. We can be fair and compassionate, rather than pursuing the same old policies that crowd our jails and prisons and make us less safe. O-H-I-O. Vote yes on Issue 1 this November.

About the Co-Authors

Malcolm Jenkins is the Co-Founder of the Players Coalition, a 2018 Super Bowl Champion Safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and an alum of The Ohio State University. Players Coalition is an independent 501c3/501c4 organization led by professional athletes to impact social and racial inequality. Visit www.players-coalition.org for more information and follow us at @playercoalition.

Austin Mack is a Wide Receiver for the football team and President of “Redefining Athletic Standards” at The Ohio State University. This Op-Ed is supported by its fellow members.