Ohio Criminal Sentencing Database
Angela Lin, The Ohio Fair Courts Alliance
January 28, 2022
Information is power, especially in today’s age where information and data are readily available and often an indication of transparency. In order to ensure equal justice in our criminal justice system, Ohioans need to have a better understanding of the problems in Ohio’s courts. However, it’s nearly impossible to gain that insight into our courts due to a lack of standardized, aggregate data regarding pre-trial and sentencing practices in relation to race, gender, ethnic background, or religion.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has been advocating for a centralized database, known as the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform, that will include the collection of statewide criminal justice sentences, making information accessible, shareable, and reportable. The database will allow judges from counties across the state to know what other judges are doing in terms of similar sentences for similar offenses. This data will also importantly provide insights for researchers, policy makers, advocates, and the public to determine whether racial disparities or other inconsistencies exist from court to court.
The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, an affiliate office with the Ohio Supreme Court, was created in 1990. In September 2019, Chief Justice O’Connor asked the Commission to convene a Uniform Sentencing Entry Ad Hoc Committee. The committee has contracted with the University of Cincinnati Information Technology Solutions Center to create this sentencing database that will improve transparency, allow judges to use data to inform decision-making, and make data accessible for the public, practitioners, and research.
To discuss this database and why it’s necessary to create a more equitable justice system in Ohio, we hosted a forum with four distinguished experts in the first webinar of our Blueprint for Democracy Series. Here are our key takeaways from each speaker.
Sara Andrews, Executive Director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission
- Felony sentencing is exceedingly complex, and the available sentencing data primarily focuses on people sentenced to prison.
- The destination is important, but to understand the true dynamics of sentencing, so is the road.
- Sentencing is not just a number — it’s a story. When you tell the story of sentencing, you help inspire engagement of the courts and judges.
- The Ohio Sentencing Data Platform will, for the first time, generate a standardized statewide felony sentencing template to ensure clear, comprehensible sentences and promote confidence in the system.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly
- Judges are completely insulated from appellate review if they determine the sentence is appropriate to protect the public. Meaningful appellate is dead in the state of Ohio due to some rulings that eliminated the check that the Court of Appeals has on the system.
- When there is disparate sentencing for similar crimes, it is not necessarily the fault of the individual judges involved. It’s our sentencing laws and the lack of data that exists and the way they’re written. As it is now, judges have no idea what other judges are doing in terms of similar sentences, so this kind of disparity (that’s full of racial and other kinds of disparity) is a result of the way our current laws are designed.
- All reform that has occurred in our criminal justice system was initially met with some resistance.
- The database is not currently designed to cover misdemeanor offenses or the juvenile court system, so expansion to include those cases will be critical once this platform is established.
Gary Daniels, Chief Lobbyist for ACLU Ohio
- There are two major concerns with the sentencing database
- The data is drilled down to counties of similar size (i.e. Cuyahoga County, Hamilton County, Franklin County), it doesn’t drill down to the individual county, individual courts, or individual judges
- The proposed rule of superintendents (the rules that govern the way courts operate in Ohio) will essentially change the definition of case document and administrative document so that the data may not be available to the public or may only be available to the public under certain circumstances
- It sounds like data will only be available via the platform and that it is completely within the discretion of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission about what they release — so if they don’t want to release certain data, they don’t have to
- The sentencing database should be treated as simply the first step in reform, because data is just data, records are just records. Even if we have all this data, if courts don’t do anything with the information or if the judges don’t change their behaviors given the data they have access to, then nothing really changes.
Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt, Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals
- A lot of opposition to the sentencing database stems from fear of the media or politics, particularly because all judges in Ohio are elected.
- The data from the sentencing platform is useful not just for judges, but also for the legislature. A judge in Columbus has more resources than a judge in rural Ohio. That judge in Columbus has more options than just sending someone to jail or prison for drug possession, for example. This database would give legislators the information they need to show where they should put treatment centers.
- This database may increase taxpayer dollars, but it’s better to put that money towards establishing a good database than towards shuffling people around prisons, which is where most of our taxpayer dollars are going towards currently.
- This platform would be valuable for voters because it would give you information on which judges you might want to vote for, how you want your justice system that is run with your taxpayer dollars to go, and what we want to do with people who have been convicted of a crime.
The Ohio Sentencing Data Platform will improve our criminal justice system’s ability to treat people more fairly and get rid of systemic inequality and explicit and implicit biases in our system, but it’s just the first step in reforming our criminal justice system in Ohio. There needs to be transparency to let the public know how the system is working, as well as further education once the database is established to let people know how to use it.
The database is currently being piloted in 15 percent of Ohio’s counties, but it will need more legislative funding in order to be successfully implemented in courtrooms across the state. You can take action in ensuring that the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform brings fairness, transparency, and accountability to our court system by supporting the project and contacting your lawmaker to tell them they should support funding for the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform.