Ohio organization’s latest petition calls for bill approval, reduced prison time with nonviolent offenders


Business management major Chris Coteat poses on a bench outside of a McDonald’s restaurant in Akron Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.

Tierra Thomas

At 26 years old, Chris Coteat, a business management major at Stark State College, finds himself with three drug-related charges on his record.

Being a teen parent with no high school education and little family support put Coteat down the path of selling narcotics.

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

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

He was given a 30-day window to find a full-time job while also attending mandatory classes and meetings with his probation officer once a week.

“I didn’t have a lot of time,” he said.

When he finally received a call back for a job interview, Coteat ran into a problem. The interview and meeting with his probation officer were both at the same time.

After coming to a decision, Coteat went to the interview and got the job.

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

“You’re going back to jail!” she screamed at him. “Have a nice life.”

Coteat faced the possibility of serving eight years, but he 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,” he said, “you’re purposefully put into positions for you to set yourself back further in life.”

The Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that unites groups that share similar interests across the state, proposed a ballot initiative to get nonviolent drug offenders released from prisons in Ohio.

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

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

This amendment would add a twelfth section to Article XV of the Ohio Constitution, reducing the number of people in state prison for low-level, nonviolent drug possession or drug use offenses. In addition, it would also turn nonviolent drug offenses, which are currently listed as felonies, into misdemeanors.

While the organization works on getting the signature for the petition, they also want to start conversations about the need to invest in people and not prisons, said Michael McGovern, the deputy communications director of OOC. 

According to Pew Trusts, Ohio’s prison population increased 16 percent between 2005 and 2008, rising from 44,270 inmates to a record 51,273.

Ohio State Rep. 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,” Clyde 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 said because of the Republican supermajority in both the Ohio House and Senate, this issue lacks the proper attention it needs. Currently, 33 Democrats sit in both the House and the Senate, along with 66 Republicans.

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

Mark Cassell, a Kent State professor of political science, thinks what the organization wants to do “makes sense” and expands on Senate Bill 66.

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

The ballot initiative petition must get 500,000 signatures across Ohio in order to be considered.

The Ohio Student Association partnered with the organization to help get signatures for the ballot initiative petition. Michele Johnson, a junior fashion merchandising major and the vice president of the Kent State chapter of OSA, 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,” Johnson 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 more than 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,” she said. “I just don’t see the benefit of someone going to prison that is addicted to drugs.”

Coteat now volunteers in multiple places across Akron and started his own Conscious Kids community center in Akron. On top of all that he already does, he said he wants to help in any way he can to get the ballot initiative to pass. 

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

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. 

Clyde, who knows about the past work of the OOC and their duty to help people, said she 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.”

Coteat met and exchanged stories with other men in prison with the same story as him — men who he fears may never get out. He looks forward to seeing how many people get released from prison if this bill initiative passes.

“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].