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Ohio Supreme Court Justice pushes judicial data in hopes of creating a more just system

Published: Aug. 6, 2021 at 1:25 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Right in your backyard, people are pleading for change in a system they say is corrupt.

Rallies have been held all over the country pushing for criminal justice reform, and judges across the country believe they have found the first step to fair justice.

“You know, the sentencing laws that we currently operate on are antiquated. They were implemented way back in 1996,″ said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly.

Justice Donnelly, along with other judges, is trying to kick start a database pilot program.

The database would help hold judges accountable to make sure sentencing decisions are fair and just.

19 News Investigates found the system still leaves judges with the discretion to show mercy.

For example:

  • Debbie Bosworth is the former clerk for the village of Chagrin Falls. She was found guilty of stealing more than $238,000, a third-degree felony. The judge in her case gave her two years of probation.
  • In another Cuyahoga County courtroom, Karla Hopkins, a former Maple Heights High School secretary, was found guilty of stealing more than $40,000. This also was categorized as a third-degree felony. The judge gave Hopkins 18 months in jail.

But what caused the disparity? Was it the fact that Bosworth paid her debts, or was it racially charged? Or just a difference in a judge?

The laws provide extreme discretion to trial court judges, to deal with sentencing criminal defendants. But there are no guardrails on the system to keep that sentencing power in check,” said Donnelly.

This is where the database would come into play.

“We found instances where a Black defendant on paper was exactly the same as a white defendant. And the Black defendant received a 26-year sentence, and the white defendant received a two-year jail sentence,“ said Donnelly. “That’s the kind of disparity that caused lawmakers in the state of Florida to react immediately and move in this direction towards the collection of necessary data.”

Justice Donnelly and others are pushing to have the state of Ohio create a database like the one being tested out in Florida.

It would list cases by race, gender, criminal background, and sentence.

”These are all important data points so that we can compare apples to apples and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, Judge. Before you go that route. Here’s what you’ve done in the past,’” said Donnelly.

This tool could shed light on racial disparities and bias within the criminal justice system, allowing for fair sentencings across the board.

Justice Donnelly tells 19 News he’s not getting full support.

19 News found that only nine judges at the Justice Center agreed to partake in the pilot program, leading us to wonder why would a judge not want to take part?

Some attorneys, like Susan Moran, have their suspicions.

“It takes away the power a little bit, right? It challenges them,” said Moran " You know, a certain judge, certainly a judge that’s been on the bench for 30 years, doesn’t want to be told that they’re doing it wrong, or that they lack perspective or that they are out of line with everybody else. That’s insulting to them.”

But despite the push and pull the program will have to be approved by the common pleas court before getting started. Donnelly is hoping that vote will take place this year.

“I think our citizens want to believe that if they find themselves in the criminal justice system, whether they are the accused or whether they are a victim. That the resolution of their case is going to be based on the facts and the rule of law, and that they’re going to be treated fairly,” said Donnelly.

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