Sentencing database moving forward

·3 min read

Oct. 4—COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court officially Monday renewed its project aimed at creating a felony criminal sentencing process that will make it easier to compare sentencing in all of Ohio's criminal courts.

When implemented, the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Data Platform will record all felony sentences in Ohio in a way that can be easily analyzed for fairness, judges said in a signing ceremony Monday.

Judge Jeffrey Reed, an Allen County common pleas judge and the first to pilot the new digital sentencing format, said judges know the reasons for their sentences, but the public often does not.

"Revelation of the factual data of felony sentencing will either disprove the negative criticism of felony sentencing, or it if substantiates a lack of fairness, will form a basis of positive improvement to the system," Judge Reed said at the signing ceremony in Columbus.

The University of Cincinnati is under a new $800,000, two-year contract to create the sentencing platform and develop it so that it will be adopted by all the courts in Ohio. Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and UC President Neville Pinto participated in the signing ceremony. The actual contract was signed last month and is a continuation of UC's previous work establishing the database.

So far, the Supreme Court has not made it mandatory for all courts. The project has received some pushback from Ohio judges, who see it as a threat to judicial independence.

Chief Justice O'Connor said the concept of a uniform sentencing entry — legal jargon for the way in which sentences are entered into the official record of Ohio's criminal courts — goes back at least to her predecessor, the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who died in 2002.

And the project still has a ways to go.

So far, four Ohio common pleas court judges participated in the year-long pilot program, with another three recently coming on. That's a fraction of the state's 244 judges. The court said it anticipates that more than 100 judges will be participating in the conversion to the digital sentencing platform by June.

Judge Gene Zmuda of the 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo chaired the commission that developed the sentencing data platform.

He said that, "felony sentencing in Ohio has become an extremely complex and taxing process." He said the state's sentencing structure gives all 244 judges "a substantial amount of discretion in imposing sentence."

The University of Cincinnati studied the pilot and concluded in August that the new uniform sentencing entry is not only viable but "highly successful," Judge Zmuda said.

"We now have judges requesting on a regular basis to become part of this platform network," Judge Zmuda said. He said 34 judges from 15 percent of the counties are now participating.

All sentences in Ohio courts are entered into a publicly accessible docket as text and can be read by the public. However, the state has no central index that compiles and tracks felony sentencing information, such as the number of people sentenced for a specific felony in a given year.

The new format will have sentencing data entered into a computer form, which will generate the text that appears in the court docket, while also storing the data for study and comparison statewide.

An example of a situation showing the need either for a better explanation or for more uniform sentencing was from two cases in August in Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court.

A former school secretary who is Black was given 18 months in prison for stealing $42,000 from the city's school district. One day earlier in the same courthouse, but under a different judge, a white female former village clerk was sentenced to probation for stealing nearly $240,000 over a 20-year period.

Aside from accumulating hard data specific to felony sentencing and outcomes — plea bargains, defendants placed on probation, or people found not guilty — the database will gather supplemental information to allow the analysis of sentencing patterns and trends.

First Published October 4, 2021, 3:22pm

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