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Justice matters is a statewide reporting project including WKSU, Ideastream Public Media, WOSU, WOUB, WYSO, WVXU and the Collaborative NewsLab @ Kent State University. Have something you'd like to share with us on this? Email us at justicematters@wksu.org.

Ohio Lawmakers Who Want Sentencing Reform Also Increase Penalties For Crime

The Ohio Statehouse in downtown Columbus on March 26, 2020.
Ryan Hitchcock
/
WOSU

When it comes to reforming Ohio's criminal justice system, changing the laws tends to start at the state-level. But while lawmakers look at shifting sentencing from prison to treatment, there's also an urge by officials to increase penalties, resulting in what can be a contrasting approach to reform.

As part of our statewide reporting collaborative Justice Matters, we take a look at the tug-of-war over criminal justice reform in Columbus.

Ray Greene Junior of Akron says in the late 90's he was stuck in an "unfair" criminal justice system.

"I can't, you know, feed my kids. I can't afford housing. I can't do anything because the system has just, you know, crippled me," Greene Said.

He went to prison on a domestic violence felony, and although he sought treatment for his violent behavior, that felony prevented him from getting a job. Which led to him selling drugs, getting caught, and going back to prison, twice.

"When it comes down to the man, you know, he ultimately has no rights. You know, he obviously has no right to get caught up in the criminal justice system and, you know, he's often left out here for dead," Greene said.

This all happened at a time when many employers required job applicants to check a box on applications if they had a felony conviction, a practice now banned for public employers.

But Greene, who now advocates for this type of reform with groups like The Freedom BLOC, said it's laws and policies like that box on applications that keep people from getting back on their feet after prison.

That includes laws made at the Ohio Statehouse where Senators and Representatives grapple with a legislative dichotomy.

Bills passed in the 2019-2020 legislative session that create new crimes and enhance penalties outweigh bills that reform the criminal justice system.
Keith Freund
Bills passed in the 2019-2020 legislative session that create new crimes and enhance penalties outweigh bills that reform the criminal justice system.

On one hand, lawmakers want to reform the system to emphasize rehabilitation and bring down the prison population.

On the other hand, those same lawmakers introduce bills that enhance penalties or create new offenses, often naming the bills after the victims.

"Whenever there is a tragic case, somebody wants to create a an increased level of penalty for that tragic case," State Rep. Bill Seitz from the Cincinnati area and a supporter of criminal justice reform at the Statehouse.

Seitz said these bills can end up stacking penalties on top of crimes that already exist.

He notes two recent bills on hazing and assaulting sports referees. Seitz said previous versions, before final drafts he supported, created too many penalties. Seitz said it's about figuring out the right approach to each crime.

"And not just a knee-jerk reaction to vastly increase penalties when there's no evidence that increasing those penalties will result in any reduction in the number of sad cases in the future," he said.

Democratic Representative Janine Boyd of Cleveland Heights is a proponent of reform and also the sponsor of Aisha's Law, which, among other things, expands the offense of "aggravated murder." It's named after Aisha Fraser who was murdered by her ex-husband Lance Mason, a former state representative.

When it comes to the tension between striving for reform and addressing serious crimes, Boyd said it's important to have conversations with advocates that represent the diversity of Ohio.

"Ensuring that they have those conversations, especially with our majority members, but our side as well, and the importance of it. It is possible to do both," Boyd said.

Boyd and Seitz say it's about adjusting a mindset from being "tough on crime" to "smart on crime."

Niki Clum with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender said that means really looking at how to create a system that prevents and deters crime. She added longer prison time increases recidivism.

"Because they lose contacts and their support system outside of prison and they lose the chance to have a career," Clum said.

But Lou Tobin with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said the shift away from being tough on crime is leading to more criminals trying to test the limits of Ohio's laws.

"I think they know that they can get away with more, that they're going to get a slap on the wrist for a lot of things that they're brought into the criminal justice system," he said.

A bill to re-classify non-violent drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors almost passed the Ohio General Assembly last year, that's legislation that could get a second chance this fall.

Many criminal justice reform groups said that's a step in the right direction but not quite enough, arguing Ohio needs a holistic approach away from a simply punitive system and towards a focus on community resources and support.

Justice matters is a statewide reporting project including WKSU, Ideastream Public Media, WOSU, WOUB, WYSO, WVXU and the Collaborative NewsLab @ Kent State University. Have something you'd like to share with us on this? Email us at justicematters@wksu.org.

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