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Ohio Attorney General Candidates Differ On Criminal Justice Reform, ECOT

Democratic candidate for Ohio Attorney General, Steve Dettlebach, left, and Republican candidate Dave Yost, right.
Andy Chow
Ohio Public Radio
Democrat Steve Dettelbach (left) and Republican Dave Yost during a debate at the City Club of Cleveland on Monday.

The candidates for Ohio Attorney General, Steve Dettlebach and Dave Yost, talked criminal justice reform in their first debate. The discussion came after an audience member asked a question referencing the hit podcast "Serial" that's been shining a harsh light on Cleveland courts and police.

Criminal Justice Reform After Serial

In the latter half of the debate, the discussion turned to criminal justice reform. An audience member asked what the candidates thought about the revelations in the latest season of Serial, the hit podcast that in recent weeks has shined a harsh light on Greater Cleveland's courts and police.

While neither candidate seemed to be familiar with the podcast, both offered up examples of the types of reforms they would advocate for if elected.

Dettelbach said that he would push for bail reform.

“We don't have debtors prison in this country,” he said. “People should be in jail if they're dangerous, not just because they're poor.”

Yost said he would use the AG's office to improve police-community relations. One way to do that, he suggested, might be a public education program, similar to one that is being rolled out by the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police, that trains people how to behave in police encounters.

“Everyone that comes into contact with the court system or with law enforcement is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect,” Yost said.

Can Ohio Recover Millions From ECOT?

The debate began with moderator M.L. Schultze asking the candidates what they would do to recover $80 million dollars that the state says it is owed by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a defunct online charter school that closed after the Ohio Department of Education found ECOT had embellished its enrollment numbers.

Yost, who has served as Ohio Auditor since 2011, said that he would use the tools of the AG's office to push to recover the money from William Lager, the founder of ECOT.

Dettelbach, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said that the money was likely beyond recovery, but that he would seek jail time.

Issue 1 & Decriminalizing Addiction

The candidates were then asked how they would change Ohio's sentencing structure to help combat the state's opioid crisis.

Neither candidate supports Issue 1, a ballot measure that, if passed, would reduce penalties for certain drug possession crimes. However, both candidates expressed, in general terms, a desire for people suffering from drug addiction to be treated less punitively under the law.

“We have to make sure addicts aren't being put in jail just because they're addicts,” Dettelbach said.

Yost said that he was in favor of “rationalizing” the criminal code “so that it's no longer a felony in Ohio to be an addict.” Though, he said, such a legislative solution would not be in the AG's control.

Areas To Focus On

Asked to name one area of the AG office's purview they would pay more attention to if elected, Dettelbach said that civil rights would become a bigger priority, “because it's the promise of our country,” he said, “that there's no person in our country that's below the law's protection.”

Yost said that antitrust enforcement would be a special area of focus for him. He then gave examples of businesses that might deserve antitrust scrutiny, such as CVS and Aetna, which are in the process of a $69 billion merger.

“The CVS/Aetna merger which was recently O.K.'d by the federal government,” he said, but “I still have questions.” And, in an apparent reference to companies like Google and Facebook, Yost said that he's concerned about “information giants,” comparing them to “modern-day railroad trusts.”