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New laws crowding prisons, ACLU says

(March 3, 2017) — As legislative liaison for the Ohio Public Defender, Kari Bloom has more than 51,000 clients.

That is how many people currently reside in Ohio’s prison system, which is filled to 134 percent of capacity.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio asked Thursday that lawmakers temporarily halt adding new criminal offenses and sanctions to state law until the Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, which plans to simplify the criminal code, completes its work later in the two-year session.

“For every bill that is introduced and passed, we get a new crime, an increased crime, an increased penalty or more people in prisons or jails for something that already exists,” Bloom said.

“The volume of criminal justice bills that are introduced reflects the values of our state. We are saying that introducing criminal justice bills, increasing sentencing, increased mandatory sentences and making more actions and activities crimes is something we care about.”

The administration of Gov. John Kasich has been trying to move nonviolent offenders out of the state prison system.

But the ACLU’s “Statehouse-to-Prison Pipeline” report shows legislators often work against that goal: one in every nine bills in the House last year contained either enhanced sentencing, created new crimes or expanded offenses. The same was true for one in 15 bills in the Senate.

Barry Wilford, public policy chairman for the Ohio Association of Defense Lawyers, pointed to bills containing the names of sympathetic victims, such as Megan’s Law.

That measure requires individuals convicted of a sexually oriented offense to register with the local sheriff’s office before living in a county. The sheriff then is required to notify all residents within 1,000 feet of the offender’s home, along with school districts, day care centers and other organizations in the area.

“Not everyone who suffers the most heinous crimes gets a law named after them,” Bloom said.

“Oftentimes they are a child. They are from either affluent or middle-class families. They are white. They are educated and they are from families who have the means or the connections or the resources to reach out to their legislators, who will listen to them.”

Lawmakers did not agree with the assessment.

One piece of legislation singled out in the report is House Bill 4. It proposes that in prosecuting and sentencing on a charge of cocaine possession, the weight of the compounds, mixtures or substances containing the cocaine would be added to the weight of the cocaine itself.

In the words of co-sponsor Rep. John Rogers, D-Mentor-on-the-Lake, you could have a truckload of cocaine, or a sugar packet of cocaine, and you would be convicted only of a 5th-degree felony.

“The intent of the bill is not to send people to prison,” Rogers said. “You’re probably not going to go to prison unless there was violence involved, or if a gun was involved. There is nothing prohibiting a negotiated plea deal, reducing the level of the offense, as long as it is dealt with at the local level.”

Including House Bill 4, the addendum lists 10 out of 100 House bills proposed for this year’s General Assembly as contributing to the “Statehouse-to-Prison pipeline.” It also lists seven out of 77 Senate bills.

The language of the legislation spans from expanding arson law, to increased penalties for various fentanyl-related crimes, to House Bill 1, which recently passed the House with a 92-2 vote. It would allow victims of dating violence to seek civil protective orders.

“I wish we did not have to work so hard, sweat so hard, pray so hard to block these enactments,” Wilford said. “But at the end of the day, all you can do is hope for fair hearings by open-minded legislators.”