Published: Thursday, March 2, 2006
Law change pleases judge
It's too soon to know how the ruling will be used, a defense lawyer says.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
YOUNGSTOWN Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court says he's pleased that he no longer has to "jump through a flaming hoop" when giving criminals sentences that he deems appropriate.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled this week that parts of the state's sentencing law are unconstitutional. Those guidelines are being thrown out, which gives judges the ability to impose stiffer sentences without having to justify their actions.
Ohio's decision comes two years after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down similar language in Washington state because it violated rights to jury trials as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
"I think it's about time," Judge Krichbaum said. "It is finally a return to allowing judges to be judges, to allow us to execute our duties as elected individuals as opposed to the computerized, plasticized Stepford wives they've tried to make us into."
Sentencing ranges for crimes remain in effect, but judges won't have to give reasons for imposing maximum, consecutive or more than minimum sentences, Judge Krichbaum said.
Previously, state law required judges to give specific sentences depending on findings they made. If a 60-year-old man was to be sentenced for shooting someone, "I had to give him affirmative points for not having a juvenile record," Judge Krichbaum said. "It wasn't pertinent, but I had to give him credit."
"The courts and the Legislature were putting form over substance," says Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains. If judges didn't make findings and record them in their journal entries, Gains said their sentences were at risk to be reversed in appeals court.
Now, "the courts will have more latitude when a defendant deserves more prison time," Gains said.
The Ohio Supreme Court reviewed sentencing law that was adopted in 1996 during a reform movement. The original goal was uniformity in sentencing, defense lawyer Thomas E. Zena said.
The problem with that, Judge Krichbaum said, is that there is no uniformity among defendants, victims, cases and communities. "The effect of drugs is more damaging here than in affluent communities," he said.
It's impossible to tell how the Supreme Court's ruling will be used, Zena said. Prosecutors will use it to say there are no restrictions during sentencing, while defense lawyers will argue that restrictions remain "but you don't have to micromanage every case," he said.
The state Supreme Court's decision also applies to all cases on direct appeal, said Judge Mary DeGenaro of 7th District Court of Appeals, which serves Mahoning, Columbiana and six other counties. She and her colleagues will look at whether new sentences are warranted in cases before them, she said.
Eventually, the decision may lead to fewer appeals because trial judges didn't use specific language during sentencings, Gains said. The prosecutor's office has been "buried" under such appeals cases for at least a year, he said. Judge DeGenaro doesn't believe the appeals court was burdened by those cases; the number of them dropped incrementally as the years went by, she said.
The 7th District Court of Appeals has reversed trial court judges' rulings, resulting in new sentencings for "dotting i's and crossing t's" while actual sentences didn't change, Judge Krichbaum said.