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Ohio legislators are responsible for sending people to jail, ACLU report says

By Connor Perrett
WCPO

(March 9, 2017) — An American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio report claims too many individuals are being sent to prison each year, and they say those at the Statehouse are at fault.

At a press conference last week, representatives from the ACLU said state lawmakers sponsored 91 bills in 2015 and 2016 that would send more people to jail or prison in what they call “Ohio’s Statehouse-to Prison Pipeline.” 16 of those bills passed and are now law.

“There are many people who have a role in the issue that we’re facing today,” Keri Bloom, Legislative Liaison at the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, said at the Thursday news conference.

“Namely though, the General Assembly plays a role in the number of criminal justice bills that are introduced and passed,” she said. “For every bill that is introduced and passed, we get a new crime, an increased crime, and increased penalty or more people in prison or jails for something that already exists.”

Barry Wilford, Public Policy Chairman at the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said legislators often create these bills in response to one particular instance and adopt the name of the victim to create emotional support for the legislation.

“Here comes Annie’s law, Laura’s law, Marsy’s law, Judy’s law and soon we’ll have a whole sorority of victims enshrined in the Ohio criminal code,” Wilford said.

Wilford, who called the trend “annoying,” said it dates back to Megan’s Law, a 1997 law named after a New Jersey girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a registered sex offender living in her neighborhood.

The law requires perpetrators of sex crimes to register with the Sheriff’s office upon moving into a new neighborhood. Wilford said this law, which has been enacted in many states nationwide, is responsible for having 40,000 registered sex offenders in the state.

While the report’s accusations primarily target bills introduced by the previous General Assembly, the ACLU also claimed that 17 bills being considered by the current legislature — 10 in the House and 7 in the Senate — would contribute to the so-called pipeline.

House Bill 30, introduced by Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, is known as Destiny’s Law.

The bill is named after Destiny Shepard who was 16 months old when she was left alone with her mother’s boyfriend, who shook her and threw her into a wall. The now 11 year old functions with only about 10 percent of her brain function and will be developmentally disabled for the remainder of her life, Koehler said.

“The gentleman that did it got the maximum eight years in prison,” Koehler said. “He’s out currently awaiting the arrival of his firstborn with his girlfriend, while Destiny and her mother Randy are facing a life sentence of caring for her daughter who will never recover.”

The Republican lawmaker says the ACLU is wrong about Destiny’s law. He said there are people who will use the fact that there is no specific law prohibiting something as an excuse to commit a crime, hence the reason for laws like the one named after Destiny.

“I don’t think as state legislators we’re filling up jails,” Koehler said. “The only person that’s filling up the jails are the people breaking the laws.”

Another bill on the ACLU’s list of bills in the current legislature is House Bill 1, introduced by Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, and Rep. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville. It would allow victims of domestic violence to take out a protective order against a significant other, even if they are unmarried or are not living together.

The bill, which received bipartisan support in the House, passed near unanimously by a vote of 92-2 last week.

But Daniels says legislators never think that their bill is the problem, and when asked, think their bills will only put a small number of people behind bars.

“Nobody is introducing bills that are going to send 1,000 people to prison next year,” Daniels said. “It’s death by tiny cuts.”

Bloom called for a halt on all sentence enhancements until the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, a group of individuals including judges, attorneys and prison officials release its recommendations to modify the Ohio criminal code. Bloom, who serves on the committee, said the recommendations should be released in May or June of this year.