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June 7, 2014

Highlighting challenges when alternatives to incarceration become state priorities

The front-page of my own Columbus Dispatch has this interesting article about the Ohio's sentencing reform efforts and the challenges posed by a troublesome offender for a sentencing system that now seeks to emphasize alternatives to incarceration.  The article is headlined "Church theft case tests rule on sentencing," and here are excerpts:

Cash Yoakem admitted that he broke into 29 churches and stole pretty much anything he could find — even communion trays — to fuel his drug habit. He has pleaded guilty to 44 counts of breaking and entering, all fifth-degree felonies, and the 26-year-old Chillicothe man will stand before a judge on Thursday and ask for leniency. Ross County Prosecutor Matt Schmidt will seek four years in prison for him instead.

Schmidt says that if any thief deserves to go to prison, it is Yoakem, who robbed from some of the churches more than once: “He broke into, damaged and stole from places of worship that many in this community consider sacred, thereby damaging their sense of sanctity.”

But under Ohio’s revamped criminal-sentencing laws, Yoakem doesn’t qualify for prison. Probation, yes, or a community-based therapeutic program, but he doesn’t meet the state’s latest criteria for prison for low-level, nonviolent, first-time offenders. Schmidt and Yoakem’s attorney each say this case sets the stage for what could be the first real test of the constitutionality of Ohio’s sweeping criminal-sentencing reforms that took shape in 2011.

At issue is a provision of the law that says that if a court cannot find a suitable sanction for a defendant who does not qualify for prison under the new guidelines, the judge can ask the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to make a suggestion as to what local programs are available. The department then can either make a recommendation — which the judge is bound by law to follow — or say it doesn’t have a suggestion, in which case the judge then can send that person to prison if he chooses.

State records show that since the reforms took place, judges in 11 counties have sought a state recommendation a total of 27 times; 12 defendants went to prison as a result and 15 got probation. In Yoakem’s case, the Ross County Common Pleas Court asked for such a recommendation and the state gave none. As a result, it is expected that Judge Scott Nusbaum will sentence Yoakem to prison when he’s due in court on Thursday.

Some judges and prosecutors have long complained about this provision of the sentencing reform. Because one goal of the legislature when it enacted the changes was to see fewer people go to prison, defense attorneys have hailed the changes as positive. In this case, however, it is the defense attorney challenging the constitutionality of the law.

James Szorady, an assistant state public defender and Yoakem’s attorney, said the state prisons department’s involvement is a clear violation of the constitutional requirement for a separation of powers by the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. “My argument is that the department is now holding sway over the court,” Szorady said. In his sentencing memo to the judge, he writes: “This is clear co-mingling of government branches ... and it is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.”

State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who was instrumental in writing the changes, said there’s nothing unconstitutional about it because the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is taking only an advisory role....

The Ohio Judicial Conference, a judges’ association created by state law, opposed this part of the sentencing reform since its inception and has asked the legislature several times to remove it because it’s a clear conflict, said Mark R. Schweikert, executive director of conference. “Frankly, I’m surprised a case hasn’t yet made it to the Ohio Supreme Court,” he said.

Schmidt said he thinks this is exactly where this one will end up. He said the reforms have hampered prosecutors and judges in their ability to punish certain offenders properly, simply to save the state money on housing prisoners, and this case is the best illustration of that so far.

“I’ve been beyond frustrated,” Schmidt said. “The sentencing reforms are not solving crimes and not rehabilitating people. They’re just making it harder to punish people, which is part of what a criminal sentence is about.”

June 7, 2014 at 04:50 PM | Permalink

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Comments

4 years in prison, when drug users get longer sentences, and hacking (mostly harmless), possessing a nude photo of a teenager even if its yourself, california three strikes, "technical insider trading",.

I love certain aspects of this country, but wide discretion of sentencing and harsh jail and prison conditions even for minor or technical crimes
may make a person want to leave, in addition the prosecute rial power and discretion

Posted by: alex | Jun 9, 2014 2:38:48 AM

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