9/30/2011

New sentencing laws bring challenges to counties



New sentencing laws bring challenges to counties
By JANE BEATHARD
Ohio Community Media
Pending changes to Ohio’s criminal sentencing laws have members of law enforcement and judicial community scratching their collective heads over how to prosecute and punish low-level felons and juvenile delinquents.
It’s not just an issue of law and order, but also one that involves money as the state seeks ways to tighten its belt by cutting the cost of operating prisons and youth detention facilities.
House Bill 86, supported by the administration of Gov. John Kasich, goes into effect today. As a result, people convicted of fraud, receiving stolen property, drug trafficking, passing bad checks, misuse of a credit card, forgery, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and a host of similar non-violent felonies are likely to be walking the streets instead of a prison yard, according to Madison County Prosecutor Steve Pronai.
The legislation raises Ohio’s threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000 and relaxes penalties for the fourth and fifth-degree felonies mentioned above. For most of these non-violent crimes, the new law mandates a year of community control (probation) instead of prison time. Previously, community control was a matter of choice for judges.
As it lessens the number of people eligible for incarceration, the new law increases the number eligible for local mental health and substance abuse evaluation and treatment.
In effect, it shifts responsibility for rehabilitation and confinement away from the state and on to Ohio’s 88 counties, many of which — like Madison County — are already strapped for cash.
People with violent histories and those who use weapons to commit crimes are exceptions to the new law. Pronai said those individuals will still see prison. But the vast majority of felons that pass through the Madison County Common Pleas Court are not violent and do not employ deadly force in their crimes, he added. Drug-related crimes dominate the local dockets. Pronai fears those will proliferate under HB-86.
Madison County Common Pleas Judge Robert D. Nichols called HB-86 a “dramatic shift” in the way Ohio handles crime and punishment. A quick review of recent cases provided a glimpse into the looming changes.
In July, Jacob A. Hix, 31, of London was sentenced to nine months in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of selling less than a gram of heroin in November and December 2010. Since his criminal history was minor and no weapon was involved, Hix would not go to prison under the new law. Instead, he would likely receive at least a year of community control for the conviction.
Likewise, Dwain M. Garrett, 23, of London was sentenced in July to six months of prison time after pleading guilty receiving stolen property and selling less than 5 grams of cocaine in August 2010. Police arrested Garrett after visitors to nearby Cowling Park complained of ongoing drug activity in the neighborhood. Under HB-86, Garrett would likely continue living at the Park Avenue address while he served a period of community control.
HB-86 also limits penalties for delinquents convicted of violent felonies and requires competency evaluations for youths accused of inflicting serious harm, according to Judge Glenn Hamilton of Madison County’s juvenile court.
Ohio’s 14- and 15-year-olds — even accused murderers — can no longer be tried as adults. That alternative is open only to prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds.
The law also allows youths convicted as adults of certain crimes be returned to juvenile court for sentencing. It eases the early release process for juveniles confined to state facilities.
Most directly, HB-86 creates a complex process to determine if a youth accused of a serious crime is “competent” to stand trial. Previously, Ohio had no formal mechanism for juvenile competency hearings, leaving the matter up to individual judges. The law also requires each juvenile court to establish procedures for a competency ruling and sets strict deadlines for that ruling.
Court-appointed attorneys will undoubtedly expend more hours and rack up additional fees in the process. In addition, the court will now regularly require services of a clinical psychologist to assess competency, Hamilton added.
A commission created by the legislation will study ways to handle delinquents who have mental and behavioral disorders. But the commission must keep in mind “the needs of Ohio’s economy” in making a final decision.
The legislature promised HB-86 would provide ”more tools in the tool box,” but then handcuffed judges in using the most effective tool — prison, according to Nichols.
“This (law) is restricting our ability to imprison people,” he said.
Community control or probation, as well as confinement in Tri-County Regional Jail and at West Central Community Corrections Facility in Marysville remain punishment options. But, Nichols questioned their effectiveness.
“The number of people on probation will explode,” he said.
He recently hired two part-time probation officers to keep tabs on increasing numbers of probationers and defendants undergoing local mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Madison County’s experience with in-house treatment at West Central has not been good.
“People didn’t complete the program,” Nichols said.
In addition, admission to treatment at Madison County Hospital’s mental health and substance abuse program is currently on a seven- to eight-week delay. That delay means defendants eligible for drug treatment in lieu of conviction are caught in a sentencing limbo while they wait their turn in line.
Space limitations at Tri-County Regional Jail, where the county’s allocation is 50 beds, is an ongoing problem that’s bound to get worse after Friday. Both Pronai and Nichols said the jail is already full “99 percent of the time.”
Nichols believes two factors led to passage of HB-86:
• Overall cost of maintaining a state prison population of about 50,000 inmates; and
• “Good faith” belief by administrators at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) that channeling non-violent felons away from prison will reduce their inclination to commit future crimes.
Nichols understands the state’s financial pinch and resulting pressure from the Ohio General Assembly to cut prison budgets. But, he’s troubled by the “sociological” approach to rehabilitation, apparently fostered by research at the University of Cincinnati.
“The university is now an adjunct to the ODRC,” Nichols said. “That relationship…is influencing the disposition of criminal cases.”
With the help of ODRC, university researchers created an “assessment tool” to calculate whether or not a felon is likely to commit future crimes. The tool — a kind of chart — takes a variety of factors into consideration, including drug use, criminal history and employment. The ODRC will require courts to use the tool in order to obtain grants to defray anticipated cost increases.
Nichols decided to forgo grant money in order maintain as much independence as possible when levying sentences.
“We won’t use the assessment tool,” he said. “We’re the only county I know of that won’t be using it.”
In general, Nichols believes steering felons away from prison is a mistake.
“During the last 15 years there has been a measurable decline in crime, while prison populations have significantly increased. I believe there is a direct relationship — increased imprisonment has resulted in decreased crime,” he said.
On the other hand, he fears decreased imprisonment will probably result in an increase in crime across the state.
Changes coming with HB-86:
• Raises the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000, with corresponding increases for higher-level theft charges.
• Mandates community control (probation) for most non-violent fourth and fifth-degree felonies.
• Erases differences between powdered and “crack” cocaine in criminal sentencing.
• Reduces penalties for selling marijuana and hashish near a school or juvenile.
• Increases maximum prison time for first-degree felony convictions from 10 to 11 years.
• Expands the eligibility of early prison release for certain adult and juvenile inmates.
• Expands inmate ability to earn “good time,” thereby reducing prison time.
• Requires courts to assist those convicted of felony non-support in finding employment.
• Establishes a statewide database of felons on probation.
• Allows merchants, libraries and museums to independently detain people suspected of criminal mischief (and shoplifting) and give them a chance to make restitution.
• Authorizes county commissioners to create a “community alternative sentencing center” to house those convicted of certain misdemeanors, including drunk driving.
• Establishes maximum 30-day jail sentences for inmates of the “community alternative sentencing center.” Inmates convicted of drunk driving may serve longer sentences in the center.
• Makes it easier for former prison inmates to obtain identification cards, work permits and licenses.
• Requires a statewide study of assaults by inmates on prison staff.
• Prohibits 14- and 15-year-old offenders from being tried as adults, regardless of the seriousness of their charges.
• Requires 16- and 17-year-olds convicted as adults of “lesser, inclusive offenses” be returned to juvenile court for sentencing.
• Establishes procedures and rules for determining a juvenile defendant’s “competency” to stand trial.
• Creates a statewide task force to study treatment methods for juvenile delinquents with mental illness and behavior disorders.
The felony caseload in Madison County Prosecutor Steve Pronai’s office is increasing — just as Ohio relaxes penalties for those crimes, according to statistics he recently filed with the county commissioners.
Between Sept. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2011, Pronai’s office presented 283 felony cases to the county grand jury. The number was 129 during the same time period in 2009 and 2010 and 151 in 2008 and 2009.
Most are drug and alcohol-related crimes, involving illegal prescription opiates such as Oxycontin and Percocet, as well as heroin smuggled from Mexico.
In turn, addicts seeking quick cash for drugs account for a growing number of burglaries and thefts in the county.
“There’s a trickle-down effect,” Pronai said.
The prosecutor is lukewarm to sentences of community control and substance abuse treatment for people convicted of drug-related crimes.
“If you got better results with treatment programs, there would be more cooperation,” Pronai said.
By JANE BEATHARD
Ohio Community Media
Pending changes to Ohio’s criminal sentencing laws have members of law enforcement and judicial community scratching their collective heads over how to prosecute and punish low-level felons and juvenile delinquents.
It’s not just an issue of law and order, but also one that involves money as the state seeks ways to tighten its belt by cutting the cost of operating prisons and youth detention facilities.
House Bill 86, supported by the administration of Gov. John Kasich, goes into effect today. As a result, people convicted of fraud, receiving stolen property, drug trafficking, passing bad checks, misuse of a credit card, forgery, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and a host of similar non-violent felonies are likely to be walking the streets instead of a prison yard, according to Madison County Prosecutor Steve Pronai.
The legislation raises Ohio’s threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000 and relaxes penalties for the fourth and fifth-degree felonies mentioned above. For most of these non-violent crimes, the new law mandates a year of community control (probation) instead of prison time. Previously, community control was a matter of choice for judges.
As it lessens the number of people eligible for incarceration, the new law increases the number eligible for local mental health and substance abuse evaluation and treatment.
In effect, it shifts responsibility for rehabilitation and confinement away from the state and on to Ohio’s 88 counties, many of which — like Madison County — are already strapped for cash.
People with violent histories and those who use weapons to commit crimes are exceptions to the new law. Pronai said those individuals will still see prison. But the vast majority of felons that pass through the Madison County Common Pleas Court are not violent and do not employ deadly force in their crimes, he added. Drug-related crimes dominate the local dockets. Pronai fears those will proliferate under HB-86.
Madison County Common Pleas Judge Robert D. Nichols called HB-86 a “dramatic shift” in the way Ohio handles crime and punishment. A quick review of recent cases provided a glimpse into the looming changes.
In July, Jacob A. Hix, 31, of London was sentenced to nine months in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of selling less than a gram of heroin in November and December 2010. Since his criminal history was minor and no weapon was involved, Hix would not go to prison under the new law. Instead, he would likely receive at least a year of community control for the conviction.
Likewise, Dwain M. Garrett, 23, of London was sentenced in July to six months of prison time after pleading guilty receiving stolen property and selling less than 5 grams of cocaine in August 2010. Police arrested Garrett after visitors to nearby Cowling Park complained of ongoing drug activity in the neighborhood. Under HB-86, Garrett would likely continue living at the Park Avenue address while he served a period of community control.
HB-86 also limits penalties for delinquents convicted of violent felonies and requires competency evaluations for youths accused of inflicting serious harm, according to Judge Glenn Hamilton of Madison County’s juvenile court.
Ohio’s 14- and 15-year-olds — even accused murderers — can no longer be tried as adults. That alternative is open only to prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds.
The law also allows youths convicted as adults of certain crimes be returned to juvenile court for sentencing. It eases the early release process for juveniles confined to state facilities.
Most directly, HB-86 creates a complex process to determine if a youth accused of a serious crime is “competent” to stand trial. Previously, Ohio had no formal mechanism for juvenile competency hearings, leaving the matter up to individual judges. The law also requires each juvenile court to establish procedures for a competency ruling and sets strict deadlines for that ruling.
Court-appointed attorneys will undoubtedly expend more hours and rack up additional fees in the process. In addition, the court will now regularly require services of a clinical psychologist to assess competency, Hamilton added.
A commission created by the legislation will study ways to handle delinquents who have mental and behavioral disorders. But the commission must keep in mind “the needs of Ohio’s economy” in making a final decision.
The legislature promised HB-86 would provide ”more tools in the tool box,” but then handcuffed judges in using the most effective tool — prison, according to Nichols.
“This (law) is restricting our ability to imprison people,” he said.
Community control or probation, as well as confinement in Tri-County Regional Jail and at West Central Community Corrections Facility in Marysville remain punishment options. But, Nichols questioned their effectiveness.
“The number of people on probation will explode,” he said.
He recently hired two part-time probation officers to keep tabs on increasing numbers of probationers and defendants undergoing local mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Madison County’s experience with in-house treatment at West Central has not been good.
“People didn’t complete the program,” Nichols said.
In addition, admission to treatment at Madison County Hospital’s mental health and substance abuse program is currently on a seven- to eight-week delay. That delay means defendants eligible for drug treatment in lieu of conviction are caught in a sentencing limbo while they wait their turn in line.
Space limitations at Tri-County Regional Jail, where the county’s allocation is 50 beds, is an ongoing problem that’s bound to get worse after Friday. Both Pronai and Nichols said the jail is already full “99 percent of the time.”
Nichols believes two factors led to passage of HB-86:
• Overall cost of maintaining a state prison population of about 50,000 inmates; and
• “Good faith” belief by administrators at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) that channeling non-violent felons away from prison will reduce their inclination to commit future crimes.
Nichols understands the state’s financial pinch and resulting pressure from the Ohio General Assembly to cut prison budgets. But, he’s troubled by the “sociological” approach to rehabilitation, apparently fostered by research at the University of Cincinnati.
“The university is now an adjunct to the ODRC,” Nichols said. “That relationship…is influencing the disposition of criminal cases.”
With the help of ODRC, university researchers created an “assessment tool” to calculate whether or not a felon is likely to commit future crimes. The tool — a kind of chart — takes a variety of factors into consideration, including drug use, criminal history and employment. The ODRC will require courts to use the tool in order to obtain grants to defray anticipated cost increases.
Nichols decided to forgo grant money in order maintain as much independence as possible when levying sentences.
“We won’t use the assessment tool,” he said. “We’re the only county I know of that won’t be using it.”
In general, Nichols believes steering felons away from prison is a mistake.
“During the last 15 years there has been a measurable decline in crime, while prison populations have significantly increased. I believe there is a direct relationship — increased imprisonment has resulted in decreased crime,” he said.
On the other hand, he fears decreased imprisonment will probably result in an increase in crime across the state.
Changes coming with HB-86:
• Raises the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000, with corresponding increases for higher-level theft charges.
• Mandates community control (probation) for most non-violent fourth and fifth-degree felonies.
• Erases differences between powdered and “crack” cocaine in criminal sentencing.
• Reduces penalties for selling marijuana and hashish near a school or juvenile.
• Increases maximum prison time for first-degree felony convictions from 10 to 11 years.
• Expands the eligibility of early prison release for certain adult and juvenile inmates.
• Expands inmate ability to earn “good time,” thereby reducing prison time.
• Requires courts to assist those convicted of felony non-support in finding employment.
• Establishes a statewide database of felons on probation.
• Allows merchants, libraries and museums to independently detain people suspected of criminal mischief (and shoplifting) and give them a chance to make restitution.
• Authorizes county commissioners to create a “community alternative sentencing center” to house those convicted of certain misdemeanors, including drunk driving.
• Establishes maximum 30-day jail sentences for inmates of the “community alternative sentencing center.” Inmates convicted of drunk driving may serve longer sentences in the center.
• Makes it easier for former prison inmates to obtain identification cards, work permits and licenses.
• Requires a statewide study of assaults by inmates on prison staff.
• Prohibits 14- and 15-year-old offenders from being tried as adults, regardless of the seriousness of their charges.
• Requires 16- and 17-year-olds convicted as adults of “lesser, inclusive offenses” be returned to juvenile court for sentencing.
• Establishes procedures and rules for determining a juvenile defendant’s “competency” to stand trial.
• Creates a statewide task force to study treatment methods for juvenile delinquents with mental illness and behavior disorders.
The felony caseload in Madison County Prosecutor Steve Pronai’s office is increasing — just as Ohio relaxes penalties for those crimes, according to statistics he recently filed with the county commissioners.
Between Sept. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2011, Pronai’s office presented 283 felony cases to the county grand jury. The number was 129 during the same time period in 2009 and 2010 and 151 in 2008 and 2009.
Most are drug and alcohol-related crimes, involving illegal prescription opiates such as Oxycontin and Percocet, as well as heroin smuggled from Mexico.
In turn, addicts seeking quick cash for drugs account for a growing number of burglaries and thefts in the county.
“There’s a trickle-down effect,” Pronai said.
The prosecutor is lukewarm to sentences of community control and substance abuse treatment for people convicted of drug-related crimes.
“If you got better results with treatment programs, there would be more cooperation,” Pronai said.

Our mission is to place a national spotlight upon the nations approach to juvenile justice, and to place faces and stories to the children that were waived, and thereby, held to an adult standard in the courtroom and then sent to adult prisons. Our mission is to end the practice of sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole, and to reduce the harm caused to children in adult prisons by supporting legislation that will make those who were sentenced as children eligible to have their sentences reviewed at some point during their incarceration. Advocates for Abandoned Adolescent's mission is to introduce concerned citizens to effective ways in which they can contribute to enhancing the quality of juvenile justice, to create chapters of A.A.A. in every state coast to coast. To organize and coordinate a national synchronized protest on all fifty state capitals on the same day, at the same moment and unified under the A.A.A. banner. Advocates for Abandoned Adolescents - Our Mission is to do better!

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