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Governor signs drug sentencing, driver's license bills

Published By Toledo Blade on January 8, 2021
Phil Plummer In The News

COLUMBUS — Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday night signed into law a measure designed to steer more non-violent offenders toward addiction treatment and other programs as alternatives to prison time.

Also among the dozen bills signed was one that will give most drivers the option of renewing their licenses for eight years at a time instead of the current four.

All were among numerous bills sent to the governor's desk by the lame-duck General Assembly late last month.

House Bill 1, sponsored by Reps. Phil Plummer (R., Dayton) and Paula Hicks-Hudson (D., Toledo), requires judges, upon request, to conduct hearings into claims from offenders that their drug or alcohol use played a role in their crimes.

It also gives more offenders the opportunity to seal past felony drug records that have become obstacles to finding jobs and housing and other efforts to rebuild their lives. It removes or raises existing caps on the number of fourth or fifth-degree felonies and misdemeanor offenses that past offenders may seek to have sealed.

Sex offenders would be ineligible.

“It is a game changer for many Ohioans who have not been able to close off their past lives and walk into a new future,” Ms. Hicks-Hudson said Friday. “It will help those who have a disease not be punished but to get treatment and help.”

This bill moved while the more controversial Senate Bill 3 did not. That bill would have reclassified low-level, non-violent felony drug offenses to misdemeanors, taking state prison time off the table.

Both measures were reactions to a failed 2018 ballot issue that would have reduced drug-related incarcerations and diverted resulting savings toward treatment and other services.

Ms. Hicks-Hudson said that, as an attorney, she often could not get the records of clients sealed because of current law.

“I believe [the law] will have a direct effect once folks know it exists...,” she said. “This is an example of reform that will provide restoration.”

The law will take effect in early April.

Senate Bill 68, also signed Thursday, would give courts the option of allowing people to use community service as an alternative to paying fees to have driving privileges reinstated.

Late in the process, it was amended to include contents of a separate bill sponsored by Rep. Derek Merrin (R., Monclova Township), that will allow Ohioans between the ages of 21 and 65, beginning on July 1, to renew their licenses every eight years instead of four.

Ohioans of any age could renew identification cards on a similar eight-year cycle.

“I was trying to think of ways to save Ohioans time and alleviate lines at the BMV,” Mr. Merrin said. “People constantly complain about the BMV process, and I was looking for a real solution to address the congestion.”

The bill contains nominal cost savings for drivers, allowing for a renewal fee double that charged for a four-year license — minus one dollar.

“I was trying to hold state revenue harmless,” Mr. Merrin said. “It would almost be impossible to get this through if we did not. My goal is always to put dollars back in taxpayers' pockets.”

There are roughly 8 million licensed drivers in Ohio and 800,000 people who use the BWV for identification cards, according to Mr. Merrin.

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