Ohio Organizing Collaborative proposes new ballot initiative


Chris Coteat poses on a bench outside of a McDonald’s restaurant in Akron on December 6, 2017.

Tierra Thomas

Being a teen parent with no high school education and little family support put Stark State business major Chris Coteat down the path of selling narcotics. At 26-years-old, he has three charges on his record.

“I did what I had to do to get me a place to stay,” he said.

Even though he’s faced jail time on more than one account, Coteat recalls one instance vividly.

The court gave him a 30-day window period to find a full-time job while also attending mandatory classes and meetings with his probation officer once a week.

“There wasn’t even enough time to work when I wanted to or even look for a job at that,” Coteat said.

When he finally received a call back for a job interview, Coteat ran into a problem: the interview happened to be at the same time as the meeting with his probation officer.

After coming to a decision, he left a voice message for his probation officer, telling her he would be late, and then went to the interview.

Coteat got the job.

Excited and overjoyed by this news, he dashed over to the probation office to attend his weekly session, only to find his angry probation officer waiting for him.

Coteat faced the possibility of serving eight years, but ended up spending six months in a halfway house.

“I feel like for people who want to do right and don’t have the resources to do so in a community such as mine where you’re disenfranchised for the most part, you’re purposefully put into positions for you to set yourself back further in life,” he said.

The Ohio Organizing Collaborative proposed a ballot initiative to get non-violent drug offenders released from prisons in Ohio.

Announced in February that Senate Bill 66 would possibly see changes in the future, the OOC plan on bringing the idea to fruition with its proposed ballot initiative.

On Dec. 1, the organization, along with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, filed a petition to Attorney General Mike Dewine. In the petition, they asked for approval of their “Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment.”

The amendment would add to section 12 in Article VX of the Ohio constitution, reducing the number of people in state prison for low-level, non-violent drug possession or drug use offenses. In addition, it would also turn non-violent drug offenses, which are currently listed as felonies, in to misdemeanors.

While the organization works on getting the signatures for the ballot initiative petition, they also want to start conversations about the “need to invest in people and not prisons,” according to Deputy Communication Director Michael McGovern.

Ohio’s prison population increased 16 percent between 2005 and 2008, rising from 44,270 inmates to a record 51,273, according to the CSG Justice Center.

Ohio State Representative Kathleen Clyde only recently became informed about this issue, but she supports the OOC and what they’re trying to achieve.

“I am excited about the possibility of this issue moving forward,” she said. “It seeks to address an important problem in Ohio and in all of our community. I am looking forward to learning more about it as the signatures are collected and the campaign moves forward.”

Clyde thinks because of the Republican Party supermajority in both the Ohio House and Senate, this issue lacks the proper attention it needs. Currently, 66 Republicans sit in both the House and the Senate and only 33 Democrats.

“I do not believe they (the Republicans) have done enough to address our record high prison population and the need to find different solutions for nonviolent drug offenses,” she said.

Political science professor, Mark Cassell, thinks what the organization wants to do “makes sense” and expands on Senate Bill 66.

“It’s about increasing the category of non-violent drug offenders, as well as parole violators would essentially not have to do time in state prison,” he said.

The ballot initiative petition must get 500,000 signatures across Ohio in order for consideration.

The Ohio Student Association partnered with the organization to help obtain signatures. Vice President Michele Johnson, a junior fashion merchandising major, immediately jumped at the opportunity to help.

“There’s people still in prison from the war on drugs, and they didn’t even get the chance,” she said.

With other members from the organization, Johnson will go around the Kent area and collect over 1,000 signatures for the ballot initiative. So far, they’ve collected over 120.

“I’ve heard countless stories of people who’ve been in prison for being addicted to drugs and they don’t get the help that they need,” Johnson said. “I just don’t see the benefit of someone going to prison that is addicted to drugs.”

Even though Coteat thinks people with drug addiction need to be helped, he sees more people going to jail for drug selling and trafficking charges.

With marijuana now being legal for doctors to use for medical purposes, Coteat said it’s a “big contradiction” for them to be the ones only allowed to use it.

“They’re the ones bringing the drugs here in the first place,” he said.

Coteat now volunteers in communities across Akron and even started his own Conscious Kids community center. On top of all he already does, he wants to help with getting signatures for the petition.

“I hope that the city supports and embraces it in a way that people benefit from it,” he said.

Clyde, who knows about the past work of the OOC and their duty to help people, “would consider” signing the petition.

“I think that we have too many people in Ohio prisons because of nonviolent drug-related crime,” she said. “I am interested in finding solutions to that problem and decreasing our prison population, making our community safer and making sure people are getting the treatment and rehabilitation they need.”

Based on his own experience, Coteat agrees government programs deserve the funds saved if the ballot initiative passes.

“All I needed was some mentoring, some leadership training, some trauma healing treatment,” he said. “I think that’s where some of those saved funds should go.”

With his new life and freedom, Coteat looks forward to the day he sees the people who share a similar story released from jail.

“It’s not going to be right until everyone is free,” he said.

Tierra Thomas is the African-American student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected].