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July 26, 2023

Ohio Supreme Court rejects myriad challenges to state's new indefinite sentencing system for most serous offenses

As reported via this official court press release, an Ohio "state law allowing prison officials to retain beyond their minimum terms offenders who violate laws or rules while incarcerated does not violate the constitutional rights of inmates, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today."  Here is more of the basics of the ruling:

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed two appellate court decisions finding the “Reagan Tokes Law” to be constitutional. The Reagan Tokes law, which took effect in 2019, imposes an indefinite prison term on those who commit serious felonies. Under the law, the offender is expected to be released once the minimum sentence is served, but the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) can maintain an inmate’s incarceration up to the maximum sentence imposed by the court for committing crimes or breaking rules.

The Reagan Tokes Law is named for a 21-year-old student who was abducted, raped, and murdered in 2017 by a man on parole. The Court consolidated the cases of two men, Christopher Hacker and Danan Simmons Jr., who were both sentenced under the new law in December 2019. The men were not involved in Reagan Tokes’ case.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Joseph T. Deters stated the two men raised a “facial” challenge to the Reagan Tokes law and so had to prove that under no circumstances could the law be fairly applied. The pair failed to prove that was the case, raising only hypothetical situations in which an inmate might serve more than the minimum term for a minor prison rule infraction, the opinion noted.

Justice Deters wrote that at some point an inmate could possibly raise a claim that the DRC applied the law in an unconstitutional manner “should the facts of a specific case so warrant.” Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody Stewart joined Justice Deters’ opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner argued that the process for denying the inmates their release is constitutionally flawed. The law does not give inmates the appropriate means of challenging the DRC’s accusations that they have misbehaved, and the DRC under the law is both the prosecutor and the arbiter or judge of prison conduct, giving the DRC sole discretion to extend inmates’ time in prison, she wrote. Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Brunner’s dissent.

The full 53-page opinion in Ohio v. Hacker, No. 2023-Ohio-2535 (Ohio July 26, 2023), is available at this link.  Here is how the opinion for the court begins:

The “Reagan Tokes Law,” which became effective in March 2019, requires that for certain first- and second-degree felony offenses, a sentencing court impose on the offender an indefinite sentence consisting of a minimum and a maximum prison term.  There is a presumption that the offender will be released from incarceration after serving the minimum prison term.  But if that presumption is rebutted, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (“DRC”) may maintain the offender’s incarceration up to the maximum prison term set by the trial court.  In these appeals, which we have consolidated for decision, appellants, Christopher P. Hacker (case No. 2020-1496) and Danan Simmons Jr. (case No. 2021-0532), maintain that indefinite sentencing under the Reagan Tokes Law is unconstitutional because it violates the separation-of-powers doctrine, the offender’s right to a jury trial, and procedural due process.  We disagree and therefore affirm the judgments of the Third and Eighth District Courts of Appeals.

The dissenting opinion by Justice Brunner begins this way:

In both of these cases, we were asked to consider the facial constitutionality of the Reagan Tokes Law (“RTL”).  I agree with several of the majority’s determinations in its analysis.  Because the RTL is, in my view, akin to Ohio’s former indefinite-sentencing scheme, I agree that the law does not violate the separation-of-powers doctrine.  I also agree that appellants, Christopher P. Hacker and Danan Simmons Jr., lack standing to challenge the Adult Parole Authority’s (“APA”) exercise of its discretion to recommend a person’s release from prison before the presumptive minimum sentence has been served, because they are not aggrieved by that provision of the RTL.  I share the majority’s view that the RTL does not violate the right to a jury trial, because nothing about the law permits a fact-finder other than a jury to find facts that increase the range of sentencing exposure of the defendant.  With respect to the majority’s overall due-process analysis, I agree that appellants do have a protectable interest in their freedom after their presumptive minimum sentence has expired, and thus, I disagree with the contrary argument of appellee, the state of Ohio.  Similarly, I agree with the majority that a facial constitutional analysis involves a review of the law that is challenged, not the policies that may be adopted to enforce the law.

But I part ways with the majority in that I do not agree with its conclusions about procedural due process.  The procedures created by the RTL are insufficient in light of the gravity of the decision being made — whether to release a person from prison on his or her presumptive release date.  This imbalance facially violates offenders’ right to due process and is unconstitutional.  And because the unconstitutional portions of the RTL cannot be severed from the law without thwarting the intent of the legislature, I would invalidate as unconstitutional the entire RTL.

July 26, 2023 at 02:40 PM | Permalink


Your view, Doug? Feels like the Court was just affirming what is really just a good time credit scheme.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 26, 2023 4:12:28 PM

Still getting through the day's email, but your feeling here is mine as well from first glance.

Posted by: Doug B | Jul 26, 2023 6:36:48 PM

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