By RON CRAIG
Seneca County commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to approve an agreement that will bring $270,000 to the county in a grant to be used for programs that would divert opioid drug users from prison sentences.
The sheriff’s office and the county’s common pleas court judges will be allowed to spend $120,000 each on efforts to combat opioid addiction, with the remaining $30,000 to be spent by the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky, and Wyandot Counties.
Commissioner Shayne Thomas voted against the Targeted Community Alternative to Prison grant measure, citing issues with stipulations to the agreement that would take money away from the county for any person sentenced to prison for a conviction of a fifth-degree felony charge.
Thomas said the state is trying to cut costs for the state’s prisons, and is using the grant to keep the prison population down.
“Anytime the state has a motive to solve one of its problems and reduce their costs, I get suspicious,” Thomas said. “It’s usually done on our backs.”
Thomas was referring to a rule that takes effect next July in which any person sentenced to prison for a fifth-degree felony conviction will result in the county being liable for $17 per day per prisoner.
Those assessments would come out of the $270,000 the county would get from the TCAP grant, and Thomas was concerned most, if not all, of the $270,000 would be lost.
Common Pleas Court Judge Steve Shuff, who attended the commissioners meeting Tuesday, said the new rule affects only drug users, not drug dealers who would face more serious felony charges.
“Most people who are sentenced to prison for fifth-degree felonies are also sentenced to other crimes that are (more serious) felonies, so it would not affect them,” Shuff explained.
The judge also pointed out there are opiates available to those in prison, so prison sentences are not always the best way to handle those convicted of drug offenses. He was careful to note the same issues are not factors when people are sentenced to time in the county jail.
Thomas said Seneca County is among others in Ohio that will be able to voluntarily send fifth-degree felons to prison, as opposed to larger counties that face mandatory prison sentences for those felons.
Thomas and Shuff said they interpret the new rules differently.
Mike Kerschner, president of the board of commissioners, said the prison diversion program is just one way to combat the opioid problem.
“There isn’t one solution to all the problems, but it’s an attempt to do something different,” Kerschner said, adding the current way such issues are being handled is not working.
Mircea Handru, executive director of the MHRSB, told the commissioners he had to file the grant paperwork by 5 p.m. Tuesday to be eligible for the funding.
When the votes on the agreement were cast, Thomas voted no, while Kerschner said, “Absolutely.” Commissioner Holly Stacy voted with Kerschner, paving the way for approval of the measure.