COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Of the pile of legislation Gov. Mike DeWine has to review, a massive bill overhauling the state’s criminal justice system is taking up the most space on his desk.
Standing at more than 1,000 pages, Senate Bill 288 cleared the house during the legislature’s marathon session Dec. 14 and early Dec. 15. The bipartisan omnibus bill, adorned with 26 last-minute amendments, is the first of its kind in more than a decade and now awaits DeWine’s signature — or veto.
“This is a major step forward and the first omnibus criminal justice bill since the last once I sponsored back in 2011 or 2012,” Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) said.
One of the amendments folds in distracted driving rules from H.B. 283 that would make texting while driving a primary offense. The offender would be charged with an unclassified misdemeanor and a fine.
Sen. Bill Blessing (R-Cincinnati) said he was concerned that fines would disproportionately hurt low-income people.
“It might not seem like $150 is much to us, but I really hope next General Assembly we look at ratcheting those numbers down to maybe $50, $100, $150,” Blessing said. “It is the deterrence that matters, not the fine.”
The bill also reduces the maximum sentence for underage drinking from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree misdemeanor. That means the maximum sentence goes from six months to sixty days and from a $1,000 fine to a $500 dollar fine.
If DeWine signs the bill, it would also expand and streamline the process for Ohioans convicted of a crime to have their records sealed or expunged.
“With a sealed criminal record, it still often prevents people from getting professional licenses,” Nikki Clum from the Office of the Ohio Public Defender said. “The ability to expunge criminal records will give individuals access to a career, not just a job.”
People would not be able to seal convictions for several offenses, including first or second-degree felonies, violent felonies, sexual offenses, domestic violence and traffic offenses. And some entities like state licensing boards will still have access to the sealed records.
The bill also blocks any arrest or conviction for possession of marijuana paraphernalia from appearing on a criminal record. on a criminal record and decriminalized the possession of fentanyl test strips.
“For now, it is my hope that universities, non-profits and other organizations will feel confident distributing these test strips as just one more harm reduction tool that will unquestionably save lives across Ohio,” Rep. Kristen Boggs (D-Columbus) said.