Friday, January 02, 2009

Government by Referenda: What's On Your Wish List?

There been much discussion in the local blogosphere about the NAACP's petition drive to place a measure on the ballot that would amend the City Charter to require a plebiscite prior to the expenditure of funds for light rail in Cincinnati. (Links: Us, the Beacon, UrbanCincy.) I will not support this measure--not because I'm a big fan of streetcars, but because I don't believe this type of issue belongs in the charter. I would cautiously support charter reform (and changing Ohio Revised Code, if necessary) to permit this sort of issue to be placed on the ballot to become a City ordinance, if passed. More democracy is good, generally speaking, but we should be careful when we alter the document that is the foundation of our governmental structure.

The whole thing has gotten me thinking, though: if I had the organizational (and financial) power of the NAACP/Green/COAST coalition, what would I place on the ballot? For me, the answer is simple: I would propose a charter amendment stripping the City of its power to enact criminal ordinances that create offenses more serious than minor misdemeanors (which do not carry the possibility of jail time) and simultaneously reclassifying all existing misdemeanors under the Cincinnati Municipal Code (CMC) as minor misdemeanors.

Such a proposal would not mean the absence of criminal law in Cincinnati. Instead, it would mean simply that all of our crimes would be defined by Ohio Revised Code (and the state has defined plenty of crimes). If the City wanted to prohibit conduct not included in ORC, it could punish such conduct only by a $150 fine (or lobby the Assembly to enact a state-wide statute).

Why shouldn't the City be in the business of drafting criminal laws? First, I doubt it's cost-effective. The City now has (and pays for) its own public defenders. It is now being billed by the County for the bed space occupied by individuals charged only under CMC. Because of the increased penalties created, more court time and (therefore) police time is used. Second, the effect of such laws on crime is highly disputable: no one has ever pointed to hard statistics that show that in the absence of the City's own criminal code, more crime would flourish in the City. Third, Council has consistently demonstrated itself to be fairly bad at drafting criminal ordinances. And finally, one set of ordinances alone--namely, the criminalization of the City's administrative building code (which gives rise to the municipal "Housing Docket")--is reason enough to strip the City of its power to create criminal offenses (but that's a whole separate post).

So if I were King For A Day, the elimination of Cincinnati's criminal ordinances is what I'd take up. If you were able to place anything you wanted on the ballot for consideration, what would it be?

1/3/09 Update: Post modified to correct typographical errors.

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