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In Ohio, Reforming Criminal Justice Clashes With Calls For Stricter Penalties

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. As part of our statewide reporting collaborative Justice Matters, Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow, takes a look at the tug-of-war over criminal justice reform in Columbus.

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

"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."

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."

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.

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.

"Whenever there is a tragic case, somebody wants to create a an increased level of penalty for that tragic case."

That's Republican Representative Bill Seitz and 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 it's about 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."

Democratic Representative Janine Boyd of 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." It's named after Aisha Fraser who was murdered by her ex-husband Lance Mason, a former state representative.

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

"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."

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."

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.