A case for Issue 1: Virgil's story
Virgil Pittman was going to be a teacher. He was 19, had graduated from Cleveland’s John F. Kennedy high school. He was taking classes at Cuyahoga Community College. It was 1995, the height of America’s “War on Drugs.” So, when Garfield Heights police caught Virgil with half a joint, they didn’t cite him—they cuffed him. Though it was his first offense, and though possession of small quantities of marijuana has been classified as a “minor misdemeanor” in Ohio since 1975, he was charged with a felony. He spent six months in Lancaster Penitentiary. “Gladiator school,” he calls it. “It was rough.”
Today, around 2,700 Ohioans are in prison for drug possession charges like Virgil’s. Issue 1 would reclassify those low-level crimes (fourth- and fifth-degree felonies) as misdemeanors. It would leave in place all penalties for drug trafficking, but a 19-year-old college student with half a joint and no priors wouldn’t be dogged for decades by a felony conviction.
When Virgil was released, his parole officer told him the felony on his record made him ineligible to work in a classroom. Virgil wasn’t going to be a teacher. He didn’t re-enroll at Tri-C.
With a criminal record, no work experience and no degree, Virgil’s employment prospects were slim. “You want to work,” he says now, “but you can’t do anything. Except maybe sell drugs.”
That comment lays bare an obvious problem with the over-use of felony charges: They come with employment restrictions, many of them permanent. The harder it is to get legitimate work, the easier it is to rationalize the risks of breaking the law. In this regard, stiff penalties aren’t a deterrence—they’re a catalyst.
But Virgil didn’t sell drugs. Instead, he did what a lot of guys with records do: odd jobs, usually under the table. Painting. Landscaping. Cleaning gutters. Jobs where he’d be lucky to make $10 an hour. “You can’t feed your family on $10 an hour,” he says, his voice rising slightly. That change in tone implies what he doesn’t say: Believe me, I’ve tried.
This went on for years, because when it comes to employment, every felony carries a life sentence. Issue 1 could change that too: Virgil and others with low-level drug felonies in their past could petition to have them retroactively reduced to misdemeanors, clearing away the barriers to employment faced by people with a felony conviction on their record.
Without that felony, Virgil wouldn’t have caught the case that has him on parole today. As he tells it, a friend got pulled over with a gun in her car. Police impounded the car. She called Virgil, who decided he’d take the hit. He told police the gun was his. True or not, that statement led to a second conviction—it’s illegal for a person with a felony on his record to possess a firearm. Another felony. Another nine months in prison.
Virgil could have been sentenced instead to probation. A lighter sentence might have made sense in his case: only his second offense in 25 years, and he wasn’t even in the car when police found the gun. It would have been better than prison, no question. But probation in Ohio is a hair’s breadth away from reincarceration, even if you stay out of trouble with police. A missed appointment with a probation officer can mean more jail time. People in the system call it a “no-show.” It’s not a crime. Neither, as Virgil points out, is “having a beer while I watch the Browns game,”—though if he did that while on probation, his next urine test might send him back to jail.
That kind of non-criminal violation happens a lot: Nearly a quarter of people sent to Ohio’s prisons each year go for probation violations that are not new crimes. That’s one of the reasons Ohio’s prisons are at 132 percent capacity. Issue 1 would reduce that number. It would put an end to the practice of locking people up for actions that aren’t illegal. It leaves in place all punishments for new crimes committed by people on probation.
These are common sense measures, with major financial benefits for the state. By reducing the prison population, Issue 1 will save $136 million a year, according to Policy Matters Ohio’s analysis. The law will require that money be redirected to victim services and addiction treatment.
Our research shows that Issue 1 is a step toward a more effective, efficient and equitable criminal justice system. It would prevent a college kid with half a joint from spending a year in prison and another 23 on the economic margins. It would stop locking people out of job opportunities for infractions unrelated to the careers they would seek. It would free up law enforcement to focus on truly dangerous criminal activity, instead of endlessly processing people in possession of small amounts of drugs.
No matter what you think of the punishments Virgil received for a crime he committed at the end of the last century, it’s undeniable that his daughters are paying for it, too. As are the students he’ll never be able to teach. When you multiply these effects by 2,700—the number of nonviolent people currently incarcerated in Ohio for low-level drug possession—it’s not hard to see how our practice of locking up people for using drugs has been devastating, especially for communities of color.
No ballot measure could undo the damage done by Ohio’s failed, decades-old attempt to incarcerate our way out of a drug epidemic. But Issue 1 would be a step in the right direction, for Virgil and thousands like him, and communities around Ohio.