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Ohio Lawmakers Wrestle With Policy Impacts On Criminal Justice System

 Ohio lawmakers say they want to reform the criminal justice system, but they continue to introduce bills that enhance penalties and create new offenses. [Keith Freund / WKSU]
Ohio lawmakers say they want to reform the criminal justice system but continue to introduce bills that enhance penalties and create new offenses.

When it comes to reforming Ohio's criminal justice system, changing the laws tends to start at the state-level. But while lawmakers look at shifting sentencing from prison to treatment, there's also an urge by officials to increase penalties, resulting in what can be a contrasting approach to reform.

Ray Greene Jr. of Akron says in the late '90s he was stuck in an "unfair" criminal justice system.

 Ray Greene Jr. is a criminal justice reform advocate.  [Jo Ingles / Statehouse News Bureau]

"I can't, you know, feed my kids. I can't afford housing. I can't do anything, because the system has just, you know, crippled me," Greene says.

He went to prison on a domestic violence felony, and although he sought treatment for his violent behavior, that felony prevented him from getting a job. Which led to him selling drugs, getting caught and going back to prison, twice.

"When it comes down to the man, you know, he ultimately has no rights. You know, he obviously has no right to get caught up in the criminal justice system and, you know, he's often left out here for dead," says Greene.

This all happened at a time when many employers required job applicants to check a box on applications if they had a felony conviction, a practice now banned for public employers.

But Greene, who now advocates for this type of reform with groups like The Freedom BLOC, says it's laws and policies like that box on applications that keep people from getting back on their feet after prison.

That includes laws made at the Ohio Statehouse where Senators and Representatives grapple with a legislative dichotomy.

Bills passed in the 2019-2020 legislative session that create new crimes and enhance penalties outweigh bills that reform the criminal justice system.  [Keith Freund / WKSU]

On one hand lawmakers want to reform the system to emphasize rehabilitation and bring down the prison population.

On the other hand, those same lawmakers introduce bills that enhance penalties or create new offenses, often naming the bills after the victims.

Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) [Ohio House of Representatives]

"Whenever there is a tragic case, somebody wants to create an increased level of penalty for that tragic case," says Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati), a supporter of criminal justice reform at the Statehouse.

Seitz says these bills can end up stacking penalties on top of crimes that already exist.

He notes two recent bills on hazing and assaulting sports referees. Seitz says previous versions, before final drafts he supported, created too many penalties. Seitz says reforming the system means figuring out the right approach to each crime.

"And not just a knee jerk reaction to vastly increase penalties when there's no evidence that increasing those penalties will result in any reduction in the number of sad cases in the future," says Seitz.

Rep. Janine Boyd (D-Cleveland Heights) is a proponent of reform and also the sponsor of Aisha's Law, which, among other things, expands the offense of "aggravated murder" to prohibit "purposely causing the death of another when the victim was a family or household member of the offender and the offender has previously been convicted of felony domestic violence or a felony offense of violence that resulted in serious physical harm against that family or household member."

It's named after Aisha Fraser who was murdered by her ex-husband Lance Mason, a former state representative and former judge.

Rep. Janine Boyd (D-Cleveland Heights) [Ohio House of Representatives]

When it comes to the tension between striving for reform and addressing serious crimes, Boyd says it's important to have conversations with advocates who represent the diversity of Ohio.

"You just have to keep proposing the legislation and having the conversations in committees and making sure the stakeholders who understand that balance," says Boyd. "Ensuring that they have those conversations, especially with our majority members, but our side as well, and the importance of it. It is possible to do both."

Boyd and Seitz say it's about adjusting a mindset from being "tough on crime" to "smart on crime." Niki Clum with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender says that means really looking at how to create a system that prevents and deters crime, she says longer prison time increases recidivism. "Because they lose contacts and their support system outside of prison and they lose the chance to have a career," says Clum.

But Lou Tobin with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association says the shift away from being tough on crime is leading to more criminals trying to test the limits of Ohio's laws.

"I think they know that they can get away with more, that they're going to get a slap on the wrist for a lot of things that they're brought into the criminal justice system," says Tobin.

A bill to re-classify non-violent drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors almost passed the General Assembly last year, that's legislation that could get a second chance this fall.

Many criminal justice reform groups say that's a step in the right direction but not quite enough, saying Ohio needs a holistic approach away from a simply punitive system and towards a focus on community resources and support.

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