Lawmaker says sentencing law shields drug dealers

David Pepper, Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General, outlines his strategy for dealing with the state's heroin epidemic on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. Pepper proposes treating the problem as a public health crisis, boosting treatment and prevention efforts and creating tough penalties for dealers. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)
David Pepper, Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General, outlines his strategy for dealing with the state's heroin epidemic on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. Pepper proposes treating the problem as a public health crisis, boosting treatment and prevention efforts and creating tough penalties for dealers. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Candidates for Ohio attorney general are backing alternate proposals for dealing with the state’s heroin epidemic.

Democrat David Pepper on Wednesday urged passage of a bill that would loosen state sentencing law to send more drug dealers to prison.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Nick Barborak of Lisbon, would remove a requirement that judges generally must sentence non-violent, first-time offenders to probation-like sentences instead of prison time.

Pepper and Barborak said one result is drug dealers can sell 5 grams of heroin worth nearly $1,000, but face no chance of prison.

Pepper said passing the bill “will put sentencing decisions where they belong: in the hands of local judges and prosecutors who know the situation on the ground and are accountable to their communities.”

Ohio’s prison population remains high despite the 2011 law meant to reduce the number of people behind bars. Like many states, Ohio has seen a surge in heroin use and a sharp rise in overdose deaths.

Barborak, Pepper and the central Ohio chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police called for passage of the bill, which has bipartisan support and passed out of a House committee earlier this year.

Judges and prosecutors have criticized the portion of the bill eliminating prison time for many fourth- and fifth-degree felonies, the lowest under Ohio criminal law.

On Tuesday, Republican incumbent Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that a northwest Ohio county is getting a $650,000 grant to help fund a pilot program for heroin addicts.

DeWine said the money will help a Lucas County program create two new victim advocate and clinical positions to assist addicts immediately after a heroin overdose. The grant also will help with recovery housing for people who have gone through treatment but need support to stay drug-free.

“Through this pilot program, local authorities will have resources to build on the groundwork they have already established to help tear down existing barriers to recovery,” DeWine said.

Pepper has criticized DeWine for reacting slowly to the heroin epidemic and not doing enough. DeWine has said the problem is unprecedented and his office has launched a number of law enforcement and treatment programs to address it.

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