LIMA — Ask any resident on the street about reforming criminal law, including the penalties defendants can receive, and the response likely is to elicit a passionate response.
Much of the criticism also would be aimed at the system. Much would talk about being tough on crime.
But that system, perhaps more than any other in the state, is the product of an insurmountable number of hours worked to create it, all aimed at trying to manage a complex and ever-changing problem.
Judge Frederick Pepple of Auglaize County Common Pleas Court agreed two years ago to chair a task force of sorts called the Ohio Criminal Justice Re-codification Committee. The work and discussions might be as boring as the name of the committee to the average person but its work could go a long way in determine how to deal with people who commit crimes during the next two decades.
“What our recommendation does is make more opportunities for lower level, nonviolent offenders to get treatment. Most of our offenders are drug-related,” Pepple said. “It can reduce the prison population for those who are addicts if they will go to treatment.”
But the committee is not making recommendations to soften every law or to try keep all offenders out of prison. The committee wants to make sure prison is reserved for those who deserve to be there, particularly violent offenders, Pepple said.
“We make more room for the more serious offenders,” he said. “I think the net result of this is really bad offenders will be in prison longer and society will be safer.”
The committee, made up of 22 people including Pepple, the state prison system and juvenile prison directors, three prosecutors, three defense attorneys, an attorney representing the Ohio Bar Association, state senators and representatives, a police chief, a sheriff, other judges, an Ohio Supreme Court justice, and others, are scheduled to have a report on all its work with recommendations sometime in the next two months.
Pepple also knows the committee, which has spent a lot of time reviewing the entire criminal code for Ohio, could make a recommendation that lawmakers never do anything with; however, he anticipates its work will become the blueprint for rewriting the criminal code.
“I accepted a long time ago when I took the job this would be only a recommendation,” Pepple said.
Pepple anticipates the committee will recommend more treatment options, including for new offenders, that will avoid a conviction, if treatment is successful, so they can get their lives back on track and not be dogged by a felony conviction for the rest of their lives, especially when applying for jobs.
“It’s a matter of trying to use resources wisely. If we can get these kids back on the right track without having them in a prison setting that is great,” Pepple said.
The committee also wants to simplify and clarify the law so it’s easier to understand by anyone reading it, and make sure possible penalties are proportionate to what is needed. As an example, he said the theft laws are in need of changing. If the amount stolen ranges from $7,500 to $150,000 it is a fourth-degree felony. The proposal is to change the amounts to $10,000 to $100,000, he said.
There also are separate laws for using someone else’s credit card making it felony. Rather than potentially two felony charges for forgery and using someone’s credit card, the proposal is to make it a theft offense based on the amount, he said.
More judicial discretion
The committee also wants to make it easier for judges to do their job without spending a lot of time covering various requirements court rulings have said judges must cover when accepting change of pleas or sentencing an offender.
It lets judges focus on substance and concentrate on administering justice rather than making sure they maneuver through the muddy waters of legal rulings through the years that have to be covered or the case can come back on appeal to be sentenced again, for example, he said.
Another consideration is doing away with suspending driver licenses in circumstances when it could stop a person from helping himself. If a person can’t drive to treatment how can he get help, Pepple said.
Judge Jeffrey Reed of Allen County Common Pleas Court said not everyone deserves to in prison. The law allows him to send violent offenders or those convicted of high-level felonies.
“A long time ago, I realized first-time, nonviolent offenders who are only in court because of an addiction, they deserve at least a chance to get treatment to curb the addiction,” Reed said.
Reed, a former prosecutor for 10 years, has been judge nearly two decade. He also has managed “drug court,” which offers intense supervision to low-level, nonviolent felony offenders who typically have an addiction problem.
In drug court, offenders meet often with the judge in an informal way to discuss their progress and treatment. Reed said 95 percent of those in the program are receiving treatment with the chance to not have a conviction entered if they successfully complete the program.
Treatment in lieu of conviction is typically for people in trouble for the first time.
“If they have a prior felony record, they have had their opportunity to change,” Reed said.
Making model citizens
Ohio prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said 22 percent of all inmates entered the state prison system in 2015, about 4,300 people, would be serving a sentence of one year or less for low-level felony crimes. The state prison system wants low-level, nonviolent felony offenders to receive treatment and punishment in the counties where they lived and has money worked in the budget to help pay for it in several pilot programs being tested across the state in four counties, she said.
“Local courts will have discretion to use these funds to supplement their existing resources to more effectively address the needs of those addicted Ohioans under their supervision,” Smith said.
Inside prisons, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services operates various programs to help inmates with issues such as drug addiction so they can potentially leave prison without the addiction controlling their lives so they can make it on the outside, Smith said.
Prison records show a 28 percent increase in treatment program participation in the first half of last year, Smith said.
Buckeye Institute spokesman Daniel Dew, who is working on suggestions to help reform the prison system separate from Pepple’s committee, said sending people to prison for less than a year can make them worse instead of helping. He said it essentially makes them “better criminals” by exposing them to hardened career criminals who mentor young, impressionable inmates, unfortunately for the worse.
No easy solutions
State Sen. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, is a member of the committee with Pepple. He said while lawmakers like to say they are tough on crime, the reality is there are so many variables from cost to the best way to protect the public that must be considered.
Pepple said lawmakers need to set aside political posturing for the sake of establishing a criminal code that betters society.
Huffman also wants to make it easier for people who made a stupid mistake or two as a 20-year-old, for example, to get his or her record expunged. While he is in the process of drafting legislation, Huffman said he wants to give broader discretion to local judges.
Any proposals to increase expungement will not be for violent or sex crimes, he said.
“The point of this is if you’re past your time of bad acting and you can say to yourself if I keep my nose clean for three years, I have something to shoot for,” Huffman said.
That incentive may be all anyone needs and may get them to the point they are leading a productive life, Huffman said.
“Why try harder if I’m not going to get anything out of it?” Huffman said.
Pepple said there’s also suggestions to work incentives into the law for offenders to get help while serving their sentence.
People with felony records have a hard time finding work, which typically means they have to work for a lot lower wage, even if they have the skill to work a higher-paying job, Huffman said.
Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick said a change in the sentencing law, Senate Bill 2, in July 1996, dealt with many of the same issues talked about today. Waldick said the law often was referred to as “truth in sentencing” by giving offenders specific terms, such as nine years for a crime, rather than a range before that law went into effect.
Truth in sentencing, however, isn’t a reality today, Waldick said. The state prison system can release an inmate 80 percent into a sentence or in some cases overrule a judge sending an offender to prison, he said.
Waldick said he is all for the being tough on crime notion but everyone who says that must be willing to pay for it. When it comes to paying higher taxes and money actually coming out of their wallet they often have reservations, he said.
Ideas for change
When asked what he would change if he could rewrite the law, Reed said he would clarify procedural guidelines for judges when it comes to discretion on length of sentences. He also would change the part of the criminal code in which he has to make determinations on issues such as metal state, whether a crime was committed on purpose, or whether the person was reckless and that behavior led to the crime.
“I want them to make things a little more clear,” he said.
Reed said prison reform as well as reforming the laws that tell judges whether to send people to prison is complicated. He said there never seems to be a shortage of people going to prison.
“We will just fill up the prisons with more violent offenders anyway,” Reed said.
Reed said he’s still trying to understand, even after 30 years working in the system, why people abuse drugs and why they commit crimes.
While that may be hard for anyone to understand, Pepple said something needs to be done. He said no one on the committee is paid but everyone wants to see change for the better. While whatever change comes from their efforts remains to be told, the real results won’t be known until it all plays out.
Reach Greg Sowinski at 567-242-0464 or on Twitter @Lima_Sowinski.