LIMA — New criminal sentencing guidelines that allow judges to send first-time, low-level felons to prison for a handful of crimes is a step in the right direction, Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick said.
“I think they are correcting a problem with the last revision of the sentencing law,” Waldick said.
The law that went into effect March 22 is supposed to give judges more discretion to send people convicted of fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to prison for certain crimes. Those crimes include offenses involving a gun, physical harm, bail or bond violation, probation violations, sex crimes, criminal acts for hire, or abuse of a position of trust, such as a public officeholder or police officer who commits a crime.
Previous law that changed in 2011 restricted judges to local sanctions instead of prison for such offenders, Waldick said.
“I think the judges should be given more discretion in criminal sentencing. Judges, of anyone involved in the system, have better knowledge about the case than either the legislature or the department of corrections,” Waldick said.
As an example, Waldick said an 18-year-old who commits one of the crimes under the old law may have a long record as a child but is committing his first crime as an adult so he’s sentenced as a first-time offender.
When that law went into effect in 2011, judges also had that concern about a loss of discretion in sentencing, said Judge Randall Basinger of Putnam County Common Pleas Court.
The point of the law that went into effect in 2011 was to curb prison crowding while reserving prison beds for violent offenders, Basinger said.
“Even before that bill was in effect, the lower tier, fourth- and fifth-degree felons who were nonviolent, weren’t really considered as candidates who were going to be sent anyway,” Basinger said.
Judge Frederick Pepple of Auglaize County Common Pleas Court said judges could send the fourth- and fifth-degree felons to prison but there was a provision that they had to ask the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for permission. He said that violates the separation of powers clause and he found it unconstitutional.
Regardless, Pepple said the situation came up rarely, maybe once a year where he had a case before him that qualified. Still, Pepple is for the change in law.
“My attitude is any piece of legislation that gives us more discretion that lets us take a look at the whole picture, that’s a good thing,” Pepple said.
Judges get to look at an offender’s history, the crime and possible sanctions that sentencing guidelines cannot fully consider, Pepple said.
“It’s very hard for a legislature to predict, in advance, all the circumstances surrounding a particular crime,” Pepple said.