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Lawmakers Look for Ways to Reform Criminal Sentencing in Ohio

Ohio Supreme Court Gavel statue
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While much of the focus is still on the budget, Ohio lawmakers are working on many other issues they’d like to address before summer break. Some legislators are taking a serious look at reforming the state’s criminal sentencing structure.

  The House just passed a bill that revamps the felony sentencing process. Right now, the procedure calls for a presentence investigation before an offender can be placed on community control or probation. This investigation can take three to six weeks and cost up to $800.

Democratic Representative Greta Johnson of Akron says there are cases where everyone agrees that the defendant just needs help rather than jail time so the current system can take too long and waste resources. This is something her bill changes by allowing the judicial system to skip the presentence investigation.

“It basically says the defendant and the prosecutor agree that this defendant needs to be put on community control and needs these services the judge can place that defendant on community control that day,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s co-sponsor is Republican Representative Bob Cupp of Lima, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice. He says it’s important for legislators to take a long, comprehensive look at the state’s criminal sentencing laws.

“To fill in some, now many times, gaps out of there because of those gaps there are some conflicting provisions it’s very complicated for judges to apply and so I think it’d be appropriate to engage in some sort of simplification that protects public safety but yet helps the system move along faster,” Cupp said.

Johnson, a former prosecutor, believes the sentencing laws in Ohio can handcuff prosecutors and judges and force them onto a specific path they might not normally take if they had their own way. Johnson adds that it’s not the General Assembly’s responsibility to legislate competence in the judicial system.

“Judges are elected and prosecutors are elected for a reason they answer to the public. And when we remove the discretion from the hands of the judges and the prosecutors we’re taking away their ability to really be the person identifying what’s really at stake in this case what’s really at issue in this case,” Johnson said.

This issue is Vikrant Reddy’s specialty. He’s a senior research fellow with the Charles Koch Institute based in Virginia. According to Reddy, the mandatory sentencing for non-violent crimes tends to be too tough. This includes crimes involving low-amount of drug possession, juveniles who steal, and low-level theft.

“They’re still crimes and they’re still things that people need to be held accountable for … but holding someone accountable doesn’t necessarily mean sending them to prison. There are lots of different ways that you can handle criminal behavior,” Reddy explained.

One way to do so, as Reddy explains, is to expand the use of so-called specialty courts. These are courts that are geared to handle singular issues such as those dealing with drug addicts, drunk drivers or veterans who commit crimes.

“These problem-solving courts are more collaborative models. And so what you’re really doing with the judge is you’re working to try and help this individual come to terms with their demons and get past their problem everybody’s kind of working towards the same common goal rather than the traditional adversarial proceedings,” said Reddy.

These specialty courts are not uncommon in Ohio. The Judicial Services Division of the Ohio Supreme Court has a list of about 180 of these courts in operation. Johnson’s district is right in the middle of Summit County which actually has 15 specialized dockets. She says the next step is sharing these services with other areas nearby.

“Smaller municipal courts might not have the ability or the funding or really the demand for it so collaboration among judges and courts are sort of the next thing we’ll see when it comes to specialty courts,” said Johnson.

Johnson and Cupp’s bill now moves to the Senate. The representatives say they’d like to keep working on new reforms that continue to simplify and streamline the sentencing process.