You don’t change the punishment for someone after he already has served his sentence. That’s easy enough using just common sense. Judges don’t always adhere to common sense, so constitutional adherents sometimes are left relying on the power struggles inherent to government.
The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 5-1 that a new sex offender law was unconstitutional because the Legislature forced state officials to change convicts’ classifications even after they had served their punishments. The ruling leaves in place the tougher guidelines for those convicted since the law went into effect.
This shouldn’t require Supreme Court justices. Lawmakers are right to decide what crimes deserve harsher penalties. But changing the terms of punishment after someone already has learned his fate throws out the concept of due process. Law and order would go from the whims of a dictator to the emotions of a mob.
The Ohio Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court separately have found that doing so is OK. However, five Ohio justices didn’t like the General Assembly having the executive branch redo judges’ rulings. Lima native Justice Bob Cupp, who spent more time as a legislator than he has as a judge, was the lone dissenter.
The ruling involves Ohio’s compliance with federal Adam Walsh Act provisions, as the state toughened from the previous Megan’s Law standards. Megan’s Law gave classifications such as “sexually oriented criminal” and “sexual predator.” The Adam Walsh Law puts offenders in tiers based on the crimes they committed. The new law classified solely based on crimes, whereas Megan’s Law gave judges some leeway in how they classified offenders.
That’s where the law ran into trouble.
The Ohio Supreme Court previously ruled that changing punishment was OK to do. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a separate case, earlier this year reached the same bad decision. Both rulings came from divided courts.
Thursday’s case involved three men convicted in 2007. The three went through the formal hearings called for under Megan’s Law and were assigned categories that required post-release registration with their county sheriffs. In November 2007, however, the three received letters from the Ohio attorney general saying the law had been changed and, as of Jan. 1, 2008, they would be considered Tier III offenders. They were subject to more stringent registration and community-notification requirements.
Ohio was the first state to implement the new registration and notification system required by the federal law. The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday said the state’s implementation violated the separation of powers among the branches of government because the Ohio Legislature was forcing the executive branch to revisit decisions made by judges.
We stick by the contention that lawmakers have the right to change penalties for crimes moving forward. But those who have been sentenced shouldn’t be subject to the changing whims of lawmakers. Five justices on the Ohio Supreme Court appear to agree, sort of.