Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
First Responder Banquet
Oct. 20, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, at the Holiday Inn, Independence, Ohio.)

Thank you Commander (Kessler) for that warm introduction.

And thanks to all of you for having me here tonight. I want to thank American Legion Post 572 ... as well as the veterans and members of the other Legion posts who are represented here. Thank you for your service in uniform and your continued service as civilians.

Legion Post 572 is the Joseph J. Jacubic Post. So, I would be remiss if I didn’t begin by paying respects to this soldier chosen as a symbol of service.

First Lieutenant Jacubic of the First Army’s 9th Infantry Division was born during World War I (1917) and at age 27 gave his life for this country in World War II (1944). 

God Bless Joe Jacubic  and his comrades who came home ... and those who did not ... and let us not forget their gallantry in defense of our freedoms.

The theme of this banquet is a great idea – veterans honoring first responders.

Before joining the Ohio Supreme Court, which seems so long ago, I was your lieutenant governor under Governor Taft, and I served as the head of the Department of Public Safety.

I held that post when the planes hit the twin towers on September 11.

No one will forget that day.

We saw incredible stories of heroism from first responders who ran toward the devastation as the office workers tried to escape. More than 400 first responders died in New York that day. One of the surviving first responders works at the Supreme Court of Ohio.

It’s been 17 years since that day but the vision remains so vivid for all of us: American first responders rushing toward danger, placing themselves in harm’s way, to save people they did not know.

For those of us who don’t work as police officers, firefighters, or paramedics ... that kind of bravery seems so fearless.  

That day showed bravery on such a grand scale.

Yet, there is bravery on a human scale that is demonstrated daily by the people we are honoring in this room tonight.

When we as ordinary citizens ask first responders, “Why you do it?” the answer is often something like, “We are just doing our jobs.”

That’s a type of bravery, too. Accepting the challenge ahead of time, not knowing what the next challenge is going to be.

It’s a job that can be thankless. Sometimes it’s a job that means having a target on your back, especially if you are a police officer.

While working at the Department of Public Safety, I saw the sacrificesof first responders — holidays, weekends, and family time — That was in addition to being in harm’s way when duty called.

I recognize and appreciate those sacrifices ... and I know that Ohio is safer because of you.

During my time with Public Safety, there were tough days as well as great days. The toughest occurred in 2000 and 2001 when two Troopers lost their lives when they were simply doing their jobs.

Anyone who serves in the line of duty knows these tragic outcomes are a possibility. 

We see them every day, in the news, when first responders risk their lives trying to fight the opioid crisis.

When a person overdoses, it’s the first responders who are not only trying to save that life, but putting their own lives at risk.

This occupational hazard, this menace of daily opioid poisonings and deaths in Ohio, has descended upon us in just the last few years. Many first responders received their initial training years before this crisis bloomed before our eyes. They had to be re-trained.

Fentanyl ... opioids.  It’s you as first responders who are exposed so frequently to these dangerous drugs. They have made your jobs treacherous in ways that couldn’t be imagined just 5 years ago.

And I wonder sometimes if public perception has caught up with that fact: The level of danger to first responders that our drug crisis represents.

In July, in Parma, not far from Post 572, a police officer himself needed a shot of Narcan after a felony drug stop.

This officer came across a combination of fentanyl and heroin. Unbeknownst to him, the drugs were in powdered form and became airborne.

He inhaled the drug combination and needed Narcan to combat the effects of that mix of heroin and fentanyl.

First responders need to carry Narcan not just to save the lives of those who overdose ... but to save their own lives, if the fentanyl or heroin touches their hands.

The problem isn’t just here in the Cleveland area ... it’s all around the state.  

Coroners in our major cities have issued the same warnings.

This opioid crisis has made your jobs harder.  

You’ve seen the drug use that leads to the destruction of families, the loss of lives, the violence and personal loss that is part of the opiate crisis.

You are on the front lines.

The only solution is to work together to make sure that people get into treatment. 

But how frustrating it is when you’ve narcanned an addict, offered to deliver him or her to a detox or treatment center only to have that lifesaving effort rejected.

Unfortunately that scenario happens repeatedly ... addicts do not go into treatment voluntarily and if they do…it’s rare that they complete treatment.

But that outcome doesn’t mean you give up and don’t try the next time and the next and the next…

I’m very proud of the work we all do to get people help.

Whether it’s you saving a life or we in the judicial branch helping or running a drug court. We have to stay focused on helping individuals.

Today, we have almost 250  Specialized Dockets courts in Ohio. Way  more than half – 170 – are drug courts. 

In reality, most if not all of our Specialized Dockets courts encounter substance abuse as a root cause of the need for intervention.

What is amazing to me is that what we do is not known by way too many Ohioans and their level of knowledge and appreciation for the danger of heroin and fentanyl is shockingly low.

.This sad situation must be true. How else can we explain the emergence of Issue 1 on the fall ballot and the amount of money and backing that Issue 1 has piled up in a few short months?

Issue 1 would do immeasurable damage to individuals and families who are caught in the drug crisis.

Here’s a statistic to put this in perspective ...in some counties, 100% of the CSB cases involving removal of children from the home is due to drug abuse of the parents ... is others its 60-70 or higher.

There should be a consensus about how we work together. We all want the same goals, and that’s true for the proponents and the opponents of Issue 1.

There are parts of the ‘reform’ agenda that we can all agree upon…for example, no judge wants to sentence a first-time, low-level drug offender to prison for possession.  Treatment instead of incarceration is always the way to go, and that’s what drug courts are all about.

But Issue 1 wouldn’t get us to the goals that we share.

If passed, Issue 1 would put human traffickers, armed robbers, and other violent criminals back on the streets with a system of early release if you get treatment or programing or work in prison ... so you can work in the prison laundry or kitchen and shave time off of your sentence ... up to 25%

It would tie judges’ hands on sentencing and, as such, remove the possibility of jail and prison for drug possession of all drugs, Heroin, fentanyl, meth, K2, and even date rape drugs and for probation viloations.

Issue 1 also would sidestep victim input on sentence modifications as I described.   

Yes, we need even more drug courts and more treatment facilities.

But if we pass Issue 1 and do away with the threat of incarceration, our drug courts will decline.

Fewer and fewer Ohioans will receive treatment.

Proponents would have you believe that Ohio has stood still for the past 50 years when it comes to drug treatment.

These proponents haven’t done their homework.

Here are some facts:  

Ohio is a leader in the number of drug courts and the quality of those courts (over 170).

We have a robust certification process for drug courts and all other Specialized Dockets courts so that best practices and compliance issues are observed.

Ohio is on the receiving end of $112 million dollars through federal grants from the Department of Justice. The purpose is to expand our treatment capacity.

Our courts have acted appropriately ... and swiftly and strongly. Courts in Ohio are a key bridge for individuals and families to gain access to programs and opportunities that aid drug abusers.

But courts aren’t the only place where government has helped.

Let’s start with government supplied Narcan for all first responders…the death rate of heroin users has declined 46% largely due to Narcan.

Our governor expanded Medicaid, which has made a huge difference in the fight against drug addiction.

The General Assembly enacted T-CAP ... Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison legislation, which is available to all 88 counties. T-CAP targets Felony 5 offenses, the lowest felony level, that are non-violent and non-sex. It especially helps drug offenders. It mandates supervision and treatment in the local community, which can be more effective and less-costly than prison.

We have established a coordinated care management program with our state Medicaid colleagues that improves access to medical and behavioral care for those in family dependency courts, drug courts and juvenile drug courts.

Children placed in foster care because of drug-dependent parents have been made eligible for Medicaid.

There are many federal and state government umbrella projects that contain grant money aimed at the drug scourge. Often the title of the program doesn’t include drugs, but the focus is there.

An example is the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act Grant Program. These grants fund projects to prevent family violence and provide immediate shelter and assistance for family violence victims and dependents. Many of these incidents stem from, or include, drug abuse.

Another is called VAWA, which is the Violence Against Women Act. This 12 million dollar grant to Ohio assists local governments, shelters and non-profits develop and strengthen law enforcement and services to combat the effects of crimes on women. And ... you know this because you are first responders ... these crimes often have a drug abuse component.

The Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Services has grant programs supporting community response to the drug epidemic. It is the lead criminal justice planning and assistance office in Ohio and is authorized to administer more than $20 million in state and federal criminal justice funding annually.

I could go on, but you see the picture: Help is out there. More help is needed. More coordination of resources is needed. But it is flat-out wrong to say that our state institutions have been standing still while this drug crisis has developed.

The first responders in our audience tonight know better than anyone that just 2 milligrams of fentanyl – that’s two one-thousandths of a gram – will kill you.

Issue 1 calls for possession of up to 19 grams to be treated as a misdemeanor. That amount could kill up to 10,000 people. But Issue 1 provides that people caught with less than 20 grams get no jail time.

Probation would be automatic under Issue 1. The judge would have no choices. Not even for fentanyl. And the same crime could be committed by the same defendant twice inside of 24 months and the judge cannot put the defendant in jail.

Issue 1 would also lead to some of the most lenient drug laws in America and freeze them in time.

The list goes on.

By extending leniency in sentencing and cutting options for judges, the key motivating factor for drug court participation would disappear.

Who would want to go through a year of mandated drug court if all they are facing is a misdemeanor charge without the possibility of jail time hanging over their heads. – even though the drug they are possessing or trafficking could kill thousands of people?

This is a proposed constitutional amendment. It’s not a statute.

Constitutional amendments are different. Issue 1 would be carved into stone with no way to change its disastrous results – except by passing another constitutional amendment to fix it. That’s a long and difficult process.

Proponents are wrong when they say Issue 1 is a way to deal with – quote – “small amounts” -- of drugs, The amendment actually uses the words non serious offenses.

That’s wrong.  As first responders, you know what small amounts of these dangerous drugs can do. What is ‘non serious’ about death?

What do we get as Ohioans from Issue 1? We get destruction of our drug courts – and we get the very real possibility that unimagined leniency toward killer drugs would draw more dealers to set up bases in our state.

Another issue that got debunked recently is that Issue 1 would save the state money.

Supporters say it would direct $ 136 million dollars to drug treatment and crime victim programs by prohibiting jail or prison time for most low-level drug possession offenders.

But there are no facts to back up that promise.

Just last week, the state Office of Budget and Management came out with a report that analyzed Issue 1 from top to bottom ... every page, every sentence.

The report found costs associated with Issue 1 outweigh the money saved, since the money saved is WAY less than the hundreds of millions forecasted by Issue 1 proponents.

the actual money saved by the state shrinks down to $1 million dollars in year one.

That’s bad enough, but first responders take note: Issue 1 would  raise costs on local government, while failing to make savings at the state level.  Your eyes are on local funding, of course.

There will not be a flood of dollars to treatment communities and courts if Issue 1 passes.

I urge you to tell your co-workers, your family and friends to vote NO on Issue 1. For all of the reasons I’ve mentioned and for your own personal safety on the job…please read the ballot language of Issue 1, vote in this year’s election and vote No.  State Issue 1 is at the end of the ballot so please mark you ballot all the way to the end.

And, Please, pass the word.

Voting started 10 days ago and continues to November 6.

Please vote No.

And, again, thanks to all of you for having saved lives and for continuing to save lives ...

... and for defending our freedoms.

Thank you.

And God Bless.