COLUMBUS, Ohio – Do some judges throw the book at Black defendants more than white ones? Are any judges lenient toward sexual assault offenders?
The public will be able to answer questions like these – and more – as a statewide criminal sentencing database is built, allowing the public to review and compare judges’ sentences.
The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, which is developing the database over the next several years, has created a website: www.ohiosentencingdata.info. There are no sentences online yet, as the project is still in the beginning stages. The website explains the database and contains a map showing which counties will participate in the pilot for the project. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court will be one of the pilot participants.
“Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judges have been in conversations about the Sentencing Database for quite some time,” the court’s Administrative and Presiding Judge Brendan J. Sheehan said in an email. “On December 7, 2020, I invited Judge Gene Zmuda (a Sixth District Court of Appeals judge who supports the database) and (Sara) Andrews of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission to speak to our Bench. During the presentation, they asked that some of our Judges take part in a pilot.”
Eight judges will participate: Judges Richard Bell, Cassandra Collier-Williams, Emily Hagan, William McGinty, John J. Russo, Nancy Margaret Russo, Deborah Turner and William F.B. Vodrey.
Since then, Sheehan said there have been follow-up conversations and representatives of the Criminal Sentencing Commission will schedule a site visit.
During the visit, members of the commission will observe sentencing hearings, court proceedings and talk with judges and court staff. The commission is trying to glean information from Cuyahoga County and the other counties participating in the pilot to figure out how to design the database platform. They need to look at how the counties enter sentences and conviction information into existing court records, so they can adapt the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform in a way in which it’s easy for county courts to use, said Sara Andrews, director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission.
All the judges in the Summit County Common Pleas Court are participating in the pilot. They were scheduled to have joined by June 30 but there have been delays in the rollout, Andrews said. Allen County was the first to sign up for the pilot.
At this time, participation in the data platform is voluntarily, Andrews said.
Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor supports the effort, although it’s expected to take years for the database to be ready in a robust form in which people can search and compare sentences. O’Connor will retire next year, and the database won’t likely be fully implemented by then, Andrews said.
The platform is currently designed only for current sentencing information. “As the project progresses and if courts volunteer, it is possible that we will create a way to include historical data,” she said.
The concept of a sentencing database has been well-received by members of the public and criminal justice reform advocates. But judges may have reservations.
Scott Anderson, associate dean for academic affairs at Capital University Law School in Columbus, considered why Ohio judges would hesitate to want to join the database for an article in the Federal Sentencing Reporter, a publication of the University of California Press. The publication featured Anderson’s article about why judges wouldn’t be enthusiastic, along with an article more in favor of the database.
Anderson, who said that generally the database is a laudable idea, noted that the people who wrote in favor of the database’s merits — Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, Ohio First District Court of Appeals Judge Pierre Bergeron and Zmud – are judges who rule on case appeals. They are not trial judges whose sentences will be examined and possibly used against them come re-election.
Implicit racial bias may be baked into the criminal justice system, but the database could result in the public pinning it all on judges, who preside over cases that prosecutors bring before their court, Anderson said.
After all, law enforcement agencies decide which neighborhoods to patrol more heavily and whom to arrest, prosecutors decide which cases to pursue and whether or how to offer plea bargains, among other decisions in the criminal justice system, he said.
“I think the judges rightly say, ‘I get it, the criminal justice system may be biased, but I shouldn’t be scapegoated for the entire system,’” he said.
Judges are also expected to enforce local norms.
For instance, if there was a home invasion burglary in Coshocton County in which the residents were tied up and held by gunpoint, the crime may shake a rural community. However, in urban areas such as Cleveland, the incidents might be more common. When it’s time for sentencing, the judge who gives the harsher penalty could be seen as unfair or even having implicit racial bias, Anderson said.
“Who’s going to give the greater sentence? Coshocton is going to give the greater sentence,” he said.
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