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Conservative Conference Addresses Criminal Justice, Pot Legalization

The group’s educational arm held its State Legislative Leaders Summit in Columbus where a collection of house speakers and senate presidents—among others—could share ideas.";s:3:

Conservative leaders from state legislatures all around the country are in Ohio this week to discuss their top issues and how they're handling them. One issue that keeps coming up is criminal justice reform.

Of the 99 state legislative chambers in the U.S., 69 are run by Republicans. That’s according to GOPAC, a national conservative Political Action Committee geared towards getting Republicans elected to state offices. 

The group’s educational arm held its State Legislative Leaders Summit in Columbus where a collection of house speakers and senate presidents—among others—could share ideas. Ohio’s Republican Senate President Keith Faber of Celina said this summit keeps him up to date with how other states tackle issues. 

“You can get to more substantive things, where I get to sit and find out what Texas is doing with criminal justice or I get to sit and talk about what Wisconsin is doing with job creation,” said Faber. 

Criminal justice reform was actually the first topic on the agenda for GOPAC’s summit. The keynote speaker—Patrick Purtill from the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition—said Republicans have been the leaders on this issue for a long time. 

“Conservatives recognize that we have too many criminal laws, we’re sending too many people to prison, we’re spending too much money to keep them there for far too long, and we’re doing too little to reintegrate them back into our communities which is where they’re headed—95% of them are coming home at some point,” Purtill said. 

Purtill said Republican-back states that made changes in the criminal justice system—while keeping public safety as their number one priority—ended up seeing a drop in crime rates. 

And he said that sometimes means embracing new approaches. He noted Texas tries to keep non-violent drug offenders out of prison and in some type of probation instead. Purtill said Georgia has a similar process while South Carolina eliminated mandatory minimums for drug offenses. 

Republican Representative Barbara Sears of Sylvania, near Toledo, said the fight against overcriminalization means resisting knee jerk reactions, such as when legislators hear about some type of crime and get the “there oughta be a law” itch. 

“I think that is human nature and I think that—particularly in a term limited environment where you’re continually seeing a large percentage of new folks coming in with fresh ideas and new ideas and old ideas are being revisited continuously, you know I think we’re always going to battle that,” said Sears. 

Since cutting back on prison time for non-violent drug offenders seemed to be a big part of Purtill’s message, Sears was asked if legalizing marijuana could help reform Ohio’s criminal justice system. 

“I think that would be devastating for the state of Ohio and I think we’re seeing that in some of the states that have legalized it,” Sears said. 

Instead, Sears said lawmakers need to look at the system to find out how they can improve it for marijuana offenders. 

“What do we need to do for the system that allows people to fix what they’ve done wrong and still hope that they can be successful in their career.” 

GOPAC Chairman David Avella said GOPAC does not have a stance on marijuana legalization. 

The session on criminal justice reform was the only one open to the media. Other topics scheduled for the summit included telecommunications, energy and health care. 

The group’s summit comes just days after the far right-leaning Americans for Prosperity held its conference in Columbus. The AFP focused on right-to-work initiatives and repealing ObamaCare. While GOPAC may have similar views and the lawmakers who speak at the summit could push for those ideas, Avella said the group itself doesn’t endorse any specific legislation.