COLUMBUS, Ohio - With Ohio prisons overflowing and thousands dying each year because of drug overdoses, there are calls for the state to change its approaches to addiction and crime.
Mitzi Stoddard of East Liverpool spent time in and out of prison for a decade while she struggled with addiction, and eventually got clean when her family got her into rehab. Stoddard said sobriety achieved behind bars won't stick upon release unless people have the appropriate treatment.
"You go there and then you feel worse about yourself; and then, you have this label that you are a criminal and an addict and you're this bad person," she said. "And you get out and more people don't want anything to do with you. And your way of coping with things as an addict is to use, because it makes that feeling go away."
The Rev. Susan Smith of Summit United Methodist Church in Columbus said she's seen the vicious cycle of addiction and prison in her community.
"I'll never forget. This one guy came in the middle of the night and he was sobbing, he was sobbing, he said, 'I just can't do this, I don't understand why I can't beat this.' It was heartbreaking, and he ended up going to jail," she said. "Now, he has a support system and he's out now, but that's the story for the vast numbers of people."
Issue One would reclassify nonviolent drug possession as a misdemeanor and assign those Ohioans to treatment or other community-based approaches.
The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association is among the groups opposed to Issue One. Executive Director Louis Tobin said the rhetoric about an "addiction-to-prison pipeline" is false, adding that of the nearly 50,000 people in prison in January, only about 2,600 were there on drug charges.
"So, some smaller number of people are there for drug possession," he said, "which means in a state where we've had 5,000 overdose deaths, that for the most part, the criminal justice system is treating these people in the community."
However, Stephen Johnsongrove, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, said there are still thousands behind bars struggling with addiction. He said treatment in prison is far less effective than on the outside.
"Putting low-level drug addiction cases into jail or prison, even with the best of intentions, is like signing a death warrant," he said. "People are not getting well in there, and they come out and are eight to 10 times more likely to die."
Reporting by Ohio News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest, and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.