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October 6, 2011

Ohio sentencing news and resources

Intriguingly, there has been a good bit of Ohio sentencing and punishment coverage in the Columbus Dispatch during our break this week, and I have linked some of the biggest stories via this post on my main blog.  In addition, I encourage everyone interesting in Ohio non-capital sentencing law and policy to look around the website of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission.  

There are lots of notable (and intricate) materials to be found on the "Resources" sections of the OCSC website  here and here.  And I will likely assign for required or recommended reading later this month these particular OCSC documents:

October 6, 2011 in Class activities, Ohio news and commentary, Scope of imprisonment | Permalink


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Having started Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” over break, I found the Dispatch article “Law Will Open Prison Doors for Thousands” especially interesting in its framing of HB 86. In “The New Jim Crow”, Alexander argues that prison sentences, the war on drugs, and the categorization of individuals as felons have evolved as a means of oppressing poor African Americans, along the lines of the Jim Crow era. Although politicians and policy makers may not be aware of the oppressive system, the bipartisan ‘tough on crime’ platform has become an institutionalized means of maintaining the racial status quo, with wealthy whites on top and poor blacks on the bottom. So it is interesting that while HB 86 appears to present a number of measures which will reverse this oppressive system, the bill is described by the Dispatch in largely economic terms.

Apparently, imprisoning large numbers of people is ‘too damn expensive.’ That makes sense, for sure, but HB 86 will also have the effect of reducing racial disparity in prison populations. For example, HB 86 increases penalties for powder-cocaine and reduces penalties for crack-cocaine, in order to “bring the two into parity.” Although Alexander claims that the majority of crack users are white, HB 86’s revision seems, at face value, to be an attempt to minimize punishment disparity between poor black crack users and middle to upper class white cocaine users. The bill will also increase the amount required for felony theft from $500 to $1,000. In Alexander’s terms, this means that all those people guilty of thefts from Walmart or Target will not be charged as felons; thus, fewer people will be stuck with the stigmatizing and life-long felon status, which prevents the individual from voting, serving on a jury, and getting a job. The same rationale can be applied to the bill’s diversion program provisions, which will save large numbers of people from the suffering and stigma of jail time.

To me, HB 86 looks like a major step in the direction of rehabilitation over what Alexander would call ‘mass incarceration.’ While rehabilitation can and does serve an economic agenda, it seems this cannot be, as the Dispatch suggests it is, the primary motivator. What about motivating drug addicts to overcome their addictions? What about equalizing the racial imbalances in jails and prisons, which do not accurately reflect the racial proportions of crime? Economical or not, HB 86 seems like solid progress in Michelle Alexander’s terms.

Posted by: Will Herbert | Oct 8, 2011 6:00:43 PM

While I do agree that there are some great benefits of H.B. 86 – namely, reducing the racial disparity associated with differences in crack/cocaine sentencing – I am nonetheless concerned about the overall elimination of “truth in sentencing” and the possible disparities that can result.
H.B. 86 creates a heightened use of earned credits, and multiple ways (including some that are entirely new) of getting out early. With these changes comes the removal of predictability; it will often be hard to predict whether a defendant receiving a prison term will actually serve the entire sentence and it will be incredibly hard to predict when he will be released. Some of the changes I noted include the following (and please note that these are very general descriptions):

- Earned Credits: Credits can be earned based on the offender’s productive participation in various prison programs. They can earn credits for up to, but not exceeding, 8% of the total prison sentence. See R.C. 2967.193(A)(2)

- Judicial Release: Previously, offenders who were sentenced to a stated prison term of more than 10 years could not receive judicial release. H.B. 86 now allows anyone to apply for it (but it is still unavailable while serving a mandatory portion of a sentence). The waiting periods include…

o If sentenced to less than 2 years, can apply for release after 30 days
o 2-5 years, can apply after 180 days
o 5-10, can apply after 5 years
o 10 years, can apply at the halfway point

-“Risk Reduction” Sentence: If “risk reduction” status is recommended and the ODRC agrees that the prisoner has complied with programming and treatment, he can be released after 80% of the aggregate nonmandataory terms. See R.C. 2929.143 and 5120.036.

- ODRC-Initiated 80% Release: The ODRC director can petition the sentencing court for release of any prisoner serving a sentence of one year or more as they reach the 80% point in their sentence.

I certainly see the argument that these various methods can help reduce overcrowding; however, I am concerned about the lack of predictability in sentences and the possible disparities involved in early release decisions. The thought that someone who is sentenced to almost 2 years for a crime could possibly get out after only 30 days is not very comforting. I would definitely like to know more about what kind of prisoners will benefit from these mechanisms. More specifically, do any of these methods help particular kinds of offenders get out sooner than others?

Posted by: Branden Albaugh | Oct 14, 2011 4:10:24 PM

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