Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ohio judge challenges sentence guidelines and wins

Madison County, Ohio Common Pleas Judge Robert D. Nichols is a vocal opponent of the "erosion" of judicial discretion in sentencing, reported the Columbus Dispatch.

Time and again over the past year, when defendants came before him whom he had to place on probation, he often mentioned from the bench that his ability to send them to prison had been taken away.

This demonstrates the conflict between using the courts as a means to save money and cut budgets and using the courts to dispense with justice.

Senate Bill 160, which took effect last month, came in response to judges’ concerns about limits placed on them in a sentencing overhaul approved three years ago. At that time, lawmakers had hoped to reduce prison populations by diverting nonviolent offenders to community-based probation and similar programs. Such crimes typically include drug and theft offenses.

Those opposed to the change suggest it diminishes the discretion of judges.  Forcing judges to use a cookie cutter approach to justice as opposed to looking at cases individually and making sentencing decisions.

Nichols appreciates these minor changes that are a result of that work group, saying that they restore options for judges in handing down punishments. But he said the recent changes don’t solve a larger problem: the consistent erosion of judges’ responsibility to sentence as they see fit.

In 2011, as part of the initial sentencing law, courts were required to use a uniform state system to evaluate defendants and assess, among other things, their risk of reoffending.

The use of evidenced based risk assessment analysis is coming to Pennsylvania as well.  The legislature has mandated the Sentencing Commission to formulate a risk assessment tool for the sentencing guidelines.

Nichols said that the new risk-assessment method conflicts with guidelines on the books that outline what judges must consider before deciding whether to send someone to prison, reported the Dispatch.

And these new, minor changes do nothing to reconcile that conflict, he said.

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