Judges: Sentencing database needed to bring public accountability to justice system

By: - July 15, 2020 12:40 am

Photo by Getty Images.

Despite state legislation to monitor court sentencing data and race statistics, Ohio’s courts have not been collecting or sharing information vital to keep the courts and the public informed about judicial activity.

That’s what judges, including two from the state’s highest court, said about a new sentencing database they say will help keep judges honest about reasons for sentencing, and level the playing field for defendants.

In a public forum hosted by the Ohio Metropolitan Bar Association Consortium, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said the database that has been a dream for nearly three decades needs to happen. 

“The establishment and the widespread use of databases that are truly useful for the fair and equitable administration of justice continues to elude us,” O’Connor said. “The efforts so far could easily be called haphazard.”

O’Connor said the lack of action isn’t just at the level of the courts, but in all aspects of the judicial system, all the way from law enforcement and prosecutors to judges.

“I believe that this situation should be an embarrassment to all of us,” O’Connor said. “I know I’m embarrassed about it.”

Ohio’s sentencing and criminal justice data is disparate and only focuses on a few outcomes, such as prison time. Sara Andrews, director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, said what little current data there is misses other punishments like probation and community service, other outcomes post-trial.

“(What is needed) is a felony sentencing database that can and will enhance public confidence (and) trust in the system by making information accessible, consumable and reportable,” Andrews said.

Currently, Andrews said the major source of aggregate data is prison population.

“Knowing more about the people who don’t go to prison is essential to inform public policy,” Andrews said.

The process of creating a database to keep track of sentencing statistics, such as felony charges, race of the defendant and specific sentence information, was supposed to be enacted starting in 1996. 

In July of that year, the 121st Ohio General Assembly passed Senate Bill 2, in which the legislature requested the Ohio Supreme Court require each common pleas court within the state maintain information about every felony case in a publicly accessible file. 

“That has not been done,” O’Connor said.

A few years later, a state commission on racial fairness recommended that statistical data “as to race” be maintained. O’Connor said no action was taken on that recommendation either.

Judges are given a large amount of discretion when it comes to sentencing, as several of the judges in the public forum said should be the case. But publicizing those decisions is important to keep those judges accountable to those they serve and maintaining consistency in sentences for similar crimes.

“Public confidence is diminished when our citizens believe…that the outcomes of the criminal justice system don’t arise from necessarily the application of the rule of law,” state Supreme Court Justice Michael P. Donnelly said. “But, rather the impression that the outcome of your criminal case … is largely dependent on the judge that is assigned to your case at the arraignment room.”

Not only does the public need to know how their courts are working, but policy makers need the information provided from a universal database to make sure the current laws are working, or change the laws that need revision, said Judge Ray Headen, of the Eighth District Court of Appeals. 

Judge Gene Zmuda, of the Sixth District Court of Appeals said the social unrest being exhibited throughout the country should be viewed as a motivation to make these databases a priority, so that those seeing the racial disparities in the justice system see a system trying to change its ways. 

O’Connor said she plans to use the last two years of her term to make the database and monitoring a priority.

“This is the time to do something, I think the political will is present at this time, the momentum is present, and we are going to do something on this,” O’Connor said.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.