Ohio lawmakers OK sweeping criminal justice law changes


By Samantha Hendrickson - Associated Press/Report For America



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A sweeping criminal justice bill passed early Thursday by the Ohio Legislature would let inmates earn more time off prison sentences, make it easier to keep some criminal records out of the public eye, and allow people to be stopped by police solely for holding or using a cellphone while driving.

The bill, which received bipartisan support, also would decriminalize fentanyl test strips, make strangulation a separate offense, outlaw fertility fraud by doctors, and mandate age-appropriate education about child sexual abuse prevention in schools, among other changes.

It would prohibit drivers from “using, holding, or physically supporting” a cellphone, with some exceptions, such as if they are stopped at a red light, using a speakerphone function without holding the phone, or holding phones to their ears for calls but not using texting or typing functions.

It now goes to the desk of GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, who had voiced support for the distracted-driving measure.

“As I’ve told some legislators, you’ll never have a chance to vote on anything that is as clear-cut that you’ll be saving lives when you vote yes on that,” DeWine said Thursday during a holiday media breakfast. “There will be many families that will be spared the tragedy of losing a daughter, son, Mom, spouse, you’ll never know who they are, so very, very happy to have that done.” The DeWines lost their daughter Becky to a car accident in 1993.

Supporters of the provision to decriminalize fentanyl strips say that particular change would help prevent fatal overdoses and save lives. The strips, which are used to detect the powerful synthetic opioid often found laced in other drugs, would no longer be classified as illegal drug paraphernalia.

Under another provision, the amount of time inmates would be able to earn off their prison sentences if they participate in job training, drug treatment or other programs would rise from 8% to 15% of their prison terms.

The measure would also make it easier to seal or expunge criminal records for some people. People would be able to apply to have their records sealed months or years sooner than is currently allowed, depending on the severity of the charges involved.

People could apply for their record to be expunged three years after a misdemeanor sentence and 10 years afterward for felonies. But crimes including violent felonies, domestic violence, certain sexual offenses, and convictions with a victim under age 13 wouldn’t be eligible for sealing or expungement.

Lou Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, expressed concern over decreasing barriers to sealing and expungement. He said it might keep employers from learning about relevant convictions in a job candidate’s past, which is especially important in careers involving children or with law enforcement.

Lawmakers also included a provision to get rid of the statute of limitations for attempted aggravated murder. That change is a response to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that the timeline for charging defendants with that runs out six years after the crime, said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Nathan Manning, of North Ridgeville.

And the measure would create the new felony offense of strangulation. Victims of domestic violence may experience strangulation multiple times in a relationship, and strangulation is often a precursor to homicide in domestic violence situations, Maria York of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network said in testimony. Creating the offense of strangulation would recognize under law just how dangerous it is and help protect victims, she said.

“Fraudulent assisted reproduction” or fertility fraud — when a physician inseminates a patient with their own sperm without the patient’s consent — also would become a criminal offense.

Manning said that he was not previously aware of the phenomenon, which has become the subject of documentaries like “Our Father” on Netflix, and was shocked that it was not yet illegal in the state.

Lawmakers also cleared a separate bill that would create the felony offense of swatting — when someone knowingly reports a false emergency that prompts response by law enforcement, such as a kidnapping, school shooting or other violent crimes.

By Samantha Hendrickson

Associated Press/Report For America