Opinion: Mass incarceration being disguised as gun control in Ohio

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recently signed a massive criminal justice reform bill, a testament to the work of activists proposing legislation since the Black Lives Matter Movement. Not included in that reform package, however, was the repeal of a law that incarcerates hundreds of people: Weapons Under Disability.

This law criminalizes possessing a gun while under indictment for violent crimes and/or drug offenses. Even if a defendant is found innocent of the original felony charge, they could be incarcerated for possessing an otherwise lawful firearm while pending adjudication. Weapons Under Disability strips the right to legally obtain a firearm without due process: that right is stolen the minute a prosecutor files a charge.

Due process is the precept of our criminal justice system. When someone is accused of a crime, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty. This presumption of innocence protects defendants’ liberty until a jury determines that liberty is a safety risk − until due process is followed. But, what happens when due process isn’t respected? What happens when that constitutional disrespect cuts across racial lines? Our jails needlessly swell and our communities are left broken.

No one understood the unconstitutionality of Weapons Under Disability better than Delvonte Philpotts, a Cleveland man who retained an otherwise-lawful gun while under indictment. The state dropped the underlying charges against Philpotts but pursued a Weapons Under Disability charge − a felony three that carries up to three years in prison. After Philpotts was sentenced, he appealed, claiming Weapons Under Disability violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and has only served to further racial disparities in the justice system. The court ruled against Philpotts, concluding there is a governmental interest in enforcing the law for public safety concerns.

Of course on the law’s face, it seemingly protects us from violent offenders. In practice, however, the law is failing. Passed in 2014, Weapons Under Disability was meant to combat the rising gun death rate. According to the CDC, the gun death rate in Ohio was 10 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014. Since then, gun violence in Ohio skyrocketed: gun deaths increased 34% over the past 10 years, with gun homicides nearly doubling − rising 43%.

In 2021, Hamilton County set a record for gun deaths. Fourteen out of 100,000 people died by bullet. Yet, in that same year of record-shattering deaths, over 330 charges were filed under ORC 2923.13 A (3) − the code that outlaws possession of a firearm while under indictment − in Hamilton County. The overwhelming majority of those charged were Black, despite accounting for only a quarter of the county’s population. The law, clearly, has not curbed gun death rates in Hamilton County or in the state, evidenced by the growing gun death rate despite vigorous prosecution of the law.

The vigorous prosecution of the law impacts our community two-fold: erroneous spending to enforce a failing law and over-incarcerating Black Ohioans. The incarceration rate of Black Hamilton County residents sits at 990 per 100,000 residents; conversely, the incarceration rate of white residents is 176 per 100,000 residents. The Black incarceration rate is 86% higher in a county that is majority white. Across the state, Black Ohioans make up 34% of jail populations and 45% of prison populations, while only accounting for 13% of the state’s population. Weapons Under Disability − a law that incarcerates majority Black defendants − has failed to mitigate gun violence in Ohio; instead, the law is kerosene to the wildfire of mass incarceration, burning lives, careers and families in its wake.

A law that failed to achieve its goal, instead incarcerating hundreds of Ohioans − majority Black − is a law that must be repealed. Effective gun control would be regulating the gun lobby, ensuring robust application processes, and minimizing accessibility to automatic weapons. What gun control should not be, however, is punitive laws that over-incarcerate people of color.

Connor Marrott is a student at the University of Notre Dame studying American Studies. His work has previously appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Connor Marrott
Connor Marrott

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Opinion: Mass incarceration being disguised as gun control in Ohio