Columbus, OH – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has doled out $1 million in support of a proposed amendment to the Ohio constitution that would eliminate prison sentences for felons convicted of drug possession offenses.
However, drug dealers in Ohio are usually charged with those same possession offenses.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, made the contribution through their advocacy program, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Plain Dealer reported.
They were among seven out-of-state individuals who made such large contributions.
The measure, known as Issue 1 or the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment, aims to reclassify many felony drug possession crimes as misdemeanor offenses.
If passed, the amendment would eliminate potential prison sentences for drug possession offenses unless the individual was convicted of the same offense three times within a two-year period.
By completing rehabilitation, education or work programming, convicts who commit "nonviolent crimes" would also be allowed to slash their prison sentences by as much as 25 percent.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative rallied behind proponents of Issue 1, who claim that the money saved by reduced prison sentences could be funneled into other programs, such as drug treatment.
The amendment would “put taxpayer dollars to better use by reducing reliance on prisons to address certain non-violent offenses, including drug use and possession,” the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative said, according to The Plain Dealer.
ACLU criminal justice manager Ana Zamora said that “lower level crimes” are driven by addictions and conditions that incarceration does not solve.
“It results in huge expenses to taxpayers with devastating impact to individuals, families, and entire communities,” Zamora asserted.
The Ohio Common Pleas Judges’ Association and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association have opposed the amendment, and Ohio Judicial Conference Executive Director and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer helped draft the official arguments against the measure.
But those groups don’t have the extensive funding provided by out-of-state groups such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Pfeifer and Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association representative Louis Tobin argued that the proposed amendment has the potential to make communities less safe.
Among Tobin's concerns was the fact that judges would no longer be able to use prison as a penalty for offenders who refuse to attend substance abuse treatment, and that costs for such treatment would fall to local governments.
"There are not many people who are addicted to these serious drugs who voluntarily go into drug treatment," Pfeifer told the Ballot Board, according to The Plain Dealer. "It just doesn't happen. Families try. They can't get them there. Friends try."
Tobin also pointed out that Ohio does not have a criminal code for “possession with intent to sell,” and that, under the proposed measure, offenders found in possession of large amounts of drugs could get off with nothing more than a misdemeanor unless prosecutors were able to prove the dealer was actually selling.
Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign attorney Don McTigue said that Tobin’s line of reasoning was “stupid,” and inaccurately claimed that Ohio law automatically presumes a felony-level trafficking offense when an individual is found in possession of an amount of drugs that exceeds a specific weight or quantity.
The law actually requires the state to prove that the drugs were for sale, and quantity only becomes an aggravating factor in sentencing after the state proves that the drugs were for sale.
In addition to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s $1 million contribution, billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Police Center kicked in another $1 million, while Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife contributed another $1 million through their Open Philanthropy Project, The Plain Dealer reported.
California businessman Nicholas Pritzker gave $50,000 to the cause, and his wife, Susan, contributed $10,000.
The proposed constitutional amendment is backed by McTigue’s group, the Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign, which raised $4.1 million in support of the measure between January and the end of July.
All but $19,000 of those funds were contributed by donors outside of Ohio.