COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio lawmakers may be on the brink of passing an omnibus criminal justice bill that would revise elements of the state criminal code, tackling both the state’s courtrooms and its system of incarceration. 

Senate Bill 288, sponsored by Sen. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville), cleared the Ohio Senate with bipartisan support by a 29-2 vote in November. Committee hearings on the Ohio House side started last week.

The 975-page piece of legislation is among a number of bills being considered before the end of the Ohio General Assembly’s session this December, as lawmakers rush to pass a flurry of proposals before session comes to a close

In committee Wednesday, S.B. 288 was also amended heavily, including to fold in bills that would enhance restrictions on texting while driving and decriminalize fentanyl testing strips. Provisions within the bill range from the creation and adjustments of criminal offenses to expanded sealing and expungement provisions.

Good Samaritan law

Under Ohio law, the state offers some level of immunity to people who seek out medical assistance for themselves or another person experiencing a drug-related overdose. SB 288 broadens the “Good Samaritan” provision, including adding drug paraphernalia.

Offense changes

Several offenses within the criminal code are added or tweaked under SB 288.

Strangulation is created as its own felony offense, in addition to what is currently in assault laws, and ranges from a second- through fifth-degree felony. The bill also creates a fertility fraud — or fraudulent reproductive assistance — offense, which is broadly when fertility doctors improperly use genetic material to impregnate patients. That ranges from a second- to third-degree felony. 

Under SB 288, underage drinking goes from a level-one to a level-three misdemeanor. 

Marijuana possession and paraphernalia are also clarified within the bill to not constitute a criminal conviction, meaning they do not have to be disclosed.

Record sealing, expungement

SB 288 also tackles criminal record sealing and expungement provisions in Ohio, broadening when prior charges, arrests, or convictions can be sealed away from public view or deleted entirely.

The bill outlines the timeline for when people can file sealing or expungement applications.

The sealing waiting period ranges from six months to seven years and is dependent on whether what is being sealed is a felony or misdemeanor, among other factors. People can file applications to have misdemeanors expunged three years after sealing them, and for felonies, ten years after sealing them, according to the bill.

Earned credit

One way that incarcerated people can shave time off their sentences is through earned credit by participating in prison programming. Under SB 288, a maximum of 15% can be earned off a sentence through earned credit, whereas prior law only allowed for a maximum of 8%.

Judicial release

SB 288 addresses judicial release during a state of emergency — which first became an issue during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also creates a new judicial release program, in which the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections can request judicial release for incarcerated people, with 80% of their sentence behind them, who meet certain requirements.

One proponent says the bill tweaks, not reforms

Omnibus bills — such as SB 288 — by nature include provisions in bulk within their hundreds of pages. SB 288 combines a number of previous bills that lost steam earlier in session and adjustments to pre-existing law.

“It is helpful progress, but it’s more along the lines of tweaks than it is actual reform with a capital ‘R,'” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio. “This bill is not reform with a capital ‘R.'”

Although the ACLU also takes issue with some provisions in the extensive bill, Daniels has testified as a proponent of the bill, as have numerous other organizations — ranging from the Office of the Public Defender to formerly incarcerated people.

Opposition to the bill has generally come from prosecutors, although more recently, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association has testified as an interested party.