COLUMBUS, Ohio—Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday signed into law an enormous criminal justice reform bill making it easier for Ohioans to adjust to life after their release, giving state officials wider latitude to release inmates early, reducing the consequences of minor marijuana offenses, and reducing underage drinking penalties, among dozens of other provisions.
The most high-profile part of the new law, added shortly before it passed the legislature, toughens Ohio’s distracted-driving laws. But the 1,000-page bill, which passed the legislature with overwhelming support, also makes the greatest changes to Ohio’s criminal code in years.
The new law, which takes effect in early April, was the product of nearly two years of work by state lawmakers and various agencies and groups.
DeWine, before signing Senate Bill 288 during a Statehouse signing ceremony, said that while Ohioans might not agree with every part of the legislation, “everybody was heard” about their opinions.
“I think legislators should be complimented on the fact that they reached out to prosecutors, that they reached out to defenders, that they reached out to law-enforcement agencies,” the governor said.
Two of the most important parts of SB288 will expand when people convicted of crimes can seek to have their criminal records sealed – in other words, kept private with limited exceptions – or expunged, meaning their record is destroyed altogether.
Proponents argue that sealing and expunging helps to address widespread problems with former inmates getting housing, being offered a job, or securing a loan because of their criminal record.
Other parts of the new law will:
Allow prosecutors or city law directors to expunge thousands of low-level marijuana possession offenses, as well as ensure that arrests or convictions for possessing marijuana paraphernalia won’t appear on Ohioans’ criminal records.
Give the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, the state’s prison agency, more power to decide when inmates should be granted an early release.
Set up a process for inmates to ask a judge for early release when the Ohio governor declares a state of emergency due to a pandemic or other public health crisis.
Allow inmates to shave more time off their sentences for participating in educational, job training, or drug treatment programs
Expand Ohio’s “Good Samaritan” law that provides immunity from arrest or prosecution for people who seek medical assistance for an overdose – either on their own behalf or for someone else – as long as the person receiving that legal protection is referred to addiction treatment within 30 days.
Create a “Tenth Amendment Center” within the Ohio attorney general’s office to monitor federal executive orders, as well as statutes and regulations, for potential abuse or overreach
Reduce the maximum punishment for people younger than 21 years old caught drinking beer or liquor from six months in jail and a $1,000 fine under previous law to 60 days behind bars and a $500 fine.
Require warrants issued for more than 30 high-level crimes be entered by Ohio law-enforcement officials into national databases within 48 hours. DeWine said in 2019 that only a small fraction of Ohio warrants showed up in national databases, though that number has improved since then through voluntary measures.
Create the new offense of “strangulation,” which would range from a fifth-degree felony to a second-degree felony. Domestic-abuse advocates have worked for years to pass such a law, pointing to research indicating that victims who are strangled by their partner are more than seven times as likely to end up being murdered by their abuser.
Make it a crime in Ohio for health providers to use their own sperm in fertility treatments without the patient’s knowledge or consent. The proposal comes after a recent documentary explored the story of a doctor at an Indiana fertility clinic who used his sperm to impregnate dozens of unsuspecting women.
Require a minimum five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of “aggravated vehicular homicide” in cases where the victim is a firefighter or an emergency medical worker. The change was brought in response to the death of Cleveland firefighter Johnny Tetrick, who was killed during a hit-and-run along Interstate 90 last month.
Decriminalize fentanyl test strips, used to test substances for the opioid. Test strips are currently classified by Ohio law as “drug paraphernalia,” and people found to possess them can face up to 30 days in jail. Supporters of the move argue it will help reduce fatal overdoses in the state; critics say the strips can help drug users look for fentanyl, which was involved in 81% of Ohio overdose deaths in 2020, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Increase the penalty for disrupting a religious service from 30 days in jail and a $250 fine to a year behind bars and a $1,000 fine. Lawmakers pointed to several instances when religious events were disrupted, including when pro-abortion rights activists marched through a “Respect Life Mass” at a downtown Columbus cathedral last year.
Eliminates a quirk in Ohio law that, in certain circumstances, leads repeat OVI offenders to serve less prison time for an OVI offense than they did for a previous offense.
Broaden Ohio’s OVI law to prohibit driving under the influence of “harmful intoxicants.” Ohio law already includes a lengthy list of substances deemed to be “harmful intoxicants” when inhaled, including gasoline, fingernail polish remover, nitrous oxide, and 1,4-Butanediol, an industrial chemical used as a recreational drug.
Give prosecutors more time to start proceedings against a defendant.
Restrict prisoners in a county or municipal jail from being able to access the internet except for a purpose approved by jail authorities. Under current law, prisoners in county and municipal jails can only access the internet for “participating in an approved educational program with direct supervision that requires the use of the internet for training or research purposes.”
Jeremy Pelzer covers state government and politics for Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. Read more of his work here.