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Ohio's Judges Considering Statewide Sentencing Database

A database could aid in examining how factors like race affect outcomes and show biases in courtrooms across the state.[Paul Brady Photography / Shutterstock]
A statue of a gavel in a fountain outside the Ohio Supreme Court.

Members of Ohio’s judicial system are calling for more uniformity in sentencing practices across courtrooms. The state’s criminal sentencing commission argues an online database of previous sentences could aid in that effort.

The database may not immediately change individual sentences, said Sara Andrews, director of the Criminal Sentencing Commission on ideastream’s The Sound of Ideas Thursday. But it would give members of the judicial system an evaluation tool, she said.

“What it would do is give us the ability to look at sentences on a statewide basis and compare and contrast similar crimes, similarly situated inmates or offenders, and sentences imposed,” Andrews said.

That could aid in examining how factors like race affect outcomes, she said, and use hard data to reveal biases in courtrooms across the state.

Through unveiling those biases and showing ways to even out sentencing, the database could help build support and trust in the state’s judicial system, said Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Raymond Headen. That’s particularly important in marginalized communities, he told SOI host Mike McIntyre.

“What we want to be able to do is to use the data, not necessarily to take away a statutory right that judges have to sentence as they please, but to give them information so that people who are in the criminal justice system are able to say, ‘I got a fair shake,’” Headen said.

Using the previous sentences to determine how to move forward with ongoing cases can also combat high incarceration rates, he said.

“It creates an entirely different basis for which we can look at the criminal justice system – in Cuyahoga County, in particular,” Headen said. “Not just about incarceration, not just hard justice, but smart justice.”

The full database also could illuminate other sides of the court system, Andrews said, including people who receive probation or don’t end up with any jail time.

“What we’re seeing now and what we have had is criminal justice policy and decisions made on a partial part of the story, right? We know who goes to prison, but we don’t know who doesn’t,” Andrews said. “We don’t know where people go when they leave court.”

Current laws call for evaluating certain factors in determining a sentence, said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who was also an SOI guest.

“We are supposed to fashion a sentence that adequately punishes the offender, protects the community, sets them on a course for rehabilitation, and – the one that’s often forgotten is, using the least amount of public resources,” Donnelly said.

And measures to collect and compare data have not been funded, he said.

The database would need support and funding from the state. State officials are still discussing the potential cost and steps needed to create it.