Many factors go into sentencing criminals

MARIETTA – For some criminal offenders, one time in the courtroom or a night spent in the county jail is enough to keep them on the straight and narrow. But for some repeat offenders, the justice system seems to be an ever-revolving door of court appearances, jail time, new crimes and new court appearances.

Prior offenses are something judges take into consideration when handing out sentences, but that does not always mean an offender with a long criminal history will get the maximum penalty.

In Washington County, the percentage of felony offenders who receive the maximum penalty is pretty low, noted Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider.

“There are far fewer maximum sentences than there used to be,” he said, pointing to a state law that requires an automatic appeal if the maximum sentence is used.

On March 13, a 19-year-old Marietta man accused of breaking into several local homes was sentenced to four years in prison, half of the maximum eight years he faced on second-degree burglary charges.

Carl Robison had no prior adult felonies, something both prosecution and defense attorneys cited during his sentencing. However, Robison had a lengthy list of juvenile offenses, including breaking and entering and theft.

An individual’s prior offenses should hold weight when it comes to imposing a sentence, said Parkersburg resident Bill Wilson.

“I think if they have a worse record, to me that means they deserve a harsher punishment,” said Wilson, 74.

Schneider, whose office makes sentencing recommendations for convicted defendants, echoed that opinion.

“Repeat offenses show they haven’t learned from their past mistakes,” he said.

Due to legislation that went into effect in Ohio in September 2011, judges do not always have the option of a prison sentence, noted Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane.

“I have several rules that I have to follow,” he said. “For fourth- and fifth-degree felonies you can only send them to prison if you find certain things in a prior record,” he explained.

Today someone accused of a fifth-degree felony can only receive the maximum fifth-degree felony punishment if they have previously committed a felony or if they violate their bond.

Still, even when the factors are in place that would give judges the option of a harsh prison sentence, it does not necessarily happen.

Last month, a Belpre man with three prior felony convictions and several misdemeanors faced 12 months in prison for a fifth-degree felony drug possession charge that he committed in July. The man, 30-year-old Nicholas J. Patterson, was sentenced to serve 10 weekends in the county jail.

Usually prior convictions are considered more if they are related to the current crime, noted Schneider.

“If you’ve got a guy with 10 speeding tickets and he commits a burglary, you might not factor in the fact that he is a lousy driver. But if his prior was also a burglary and he commits another burglary, that holds more weight,” he said.

In Patterson’s case, his prior felonies were not drug offenses; they were a burglary and two parole violations.

That automatic appeal process that was also part of the Ohio sentencing law plays a part as well, said Schneider.

“Eventually judges figured out if you give them one month less than the max, the person doesn’t get an automatic appeal,” he said.

On March 21, Summit County resident Torrey Swain, 32, was sentenced to 17 months in prison, one month less than the maximum 18 months he could have received.

Even with the automatic appeal law, judges still have the option to sentence offenders to the maximum. In fact, judges have a lot of leeway when determining sentencing length, noted Schneider.

Ohio law gives sentencing ranges, so someone accused of a first-degree misdemeanor, for example, can be sentenced from anywhere from zero to 180 days in jail, he said.

“The first time, the tendency is to say, well we hope this person stops so we’ll give them a shorter sentence and graduate them if they keep committing,” said Schneider.

That was the case with Daniel R. Sampson, 44, of 306 Third St., Lowell, who was sentenced Tuesday to 14 months in prison for his sixth OVI charge. For the first five charges, Sampson spent 10, 20, 30, 30, and 180 days in jail, respectively.

One reason repeat offenders do not always get the max is that criminal history is simply one part of the sentencing equation. There are many factors judges look out when deciding on criminal penalties, explained Lane.

“I look at everything,” he said.

Among other factors, the severity of the current crime, a victim impact statement, and whether the offender has been proactive about seeking counseling play a role in what type and length of sentence is prescribed.

Marietta resident Delmarie Ellisor, 30, agreed that priors should play a part, but not be the ultimate deciding factor when it comes to a punishment.

“I think judges should consider (a prior record), but I think it depends more on how serious the current crime is,” she said.

Another tool judges can use is the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS), which is administered to offenders to determine how likely they are to recommit and to help determine what sort of sentencing options, such as counseling or community control, would be a good fit.

Marie Ruckel, intake coordinator for the SEPTA Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, administers a version of the ORAS called the Community Supervision Tool (CST) to offenders in 18 counties, including Washington.

The CST is one of seven ORAS tools administered across the state. The CST is designed for offenders who are on community supervision or are expected to be. It rates offenders on scale of 0-49, and divides those scores into different categories of risk for recidivism, explained Ruckel.

“There are 35 questions that we ask and they cover seven categories such as a person’s criminal history, education, employment and financial situation, social support, neighborhood problems, substance abuse, peer associations and criminal attitude,” she said.

A low ORAS score generally means a person has a lower risk rate of recommitting a crime, she explained.

It’s not always a good idea to place those people in a population with those who have negative attitudes about law enforcement or the court system, she said.

“People in a very low category might have general positive attitudes about the criminal justice system and you wouldn’t want to put them with high risk individuals and have an overlapping of negative attitudes that low risk person wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise,” she said.

This overlap of criminal mindset became a problem in the juvenile system, explained Washington County Assistant Public Defender Shawna Landaker.

“You would put the juvenile who is not very sophisticated in with someone who is and they are a bigger problem when they come out when they went in,” she said.

Additionally, sentencing someone to the max based on only a prior record poses other problems, said Landaker.

“One of the disadvantages of sending someone away for prison is that sometimes they are not given the chance for treatment,” she said.

Studies have show that in the long run, treatment can be more cost effective than incarceration, she added.

Marietta resident Edward Hicks, 39, said he thinks people always have the capability for change.

“I don’t think we should be judging people on based on their past,” he said.