BY MICHAEL HAWTHORNE
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS -- Ohioans convicted of misdemeanors such as drunken driving, passing bad checks and disorderly conduct could spend more time in jail under a proposal unveiled Thursday by the state Criminal Sentencing Commission.
The legislative package contains a mix of good and bad for scofflaws: Speeders would no longer face jail time for a second offense in a year, but motorists who refuse to submit to breath tests would be presumed to be drunken drivers.
If the General Assembly adopts the changes, some serious misdemeanor offenders could spend more time in jail than some felons spend in state prisons.
Ohio Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, the commission's chairman, said the state needs to overhaul misdemeanor sentences to make sure the worst offenders are properly punished. But some county officials fear the proposal could pack more people into crowded jails.
"The idea here is you don't get free crimes," said David Diroll, the panel's executive director. "If you are a big enough troublemaker, you should be isolated longer."
The commission's proposal would spur dramatic changes
in a criminal justice system where most misdemeanor offenders spend six months or less in jail.
For instance, judges would be encouraged to order multiyear jail terms for multiple misdemeanors, instead of allowing offenders to serve two or more sentences at the same time. Under current law, a person convicted of multiple misdemeanors can be sentenced to no more than 18 months in jail.
Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin, a commission member and leading opponent of the proposal, said he is troubled by a provision that would force felony offenders also convicted of misdemeanors to serve time in county jail before or after finishing their prison sentences.
CRACKING DOWN ON MISDEMEANORS
The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission is recommending a series of changes for serious traffic violations and other misdemeanors. It will be up to legislators to decide if the changes become law.|
Sentences for two or more misdemeanor convictions would not be automatically
served at the same time.
The 18-month cap on consecutive jail terms for misdemeanor offenders would be eliminated unless the offenses arose from the same incident.
Penalties for vehicular homicide while driving drunk would increase and the crime would be easier to prove.
Motorists who refuse to submit to breath tests would be presumed to be driving drunk.
Devices such as ignition locks could be used to enforce a broader number of license suspensions.
Receiving a second speeding ticket within a year would be reduced to a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine instead of jail time.
Motorists with suspended licenses could find it easier to gain limited driving privileges for medical and educational purposes.
To encourage motorists to drive sober, penalties would be reduced for those who are drunk but not driving.
Ohioans convicted of both types of crimes typically only serve time for the felony under current law. The minimum sentence to state prison is six months.
"Some people like to say they're tough on crime, but they don't worry about how you pay for it," Mr. Dowlin said. "This is just another unfunded mandate handed down to the counties by the state." While he isn't sure how much the changes would cost, he noted most misdemeanor offenders in Hamilton County spend 45 days or fewer in jail.
County officials say their jails aren't designed to house inmates for long periods.
"Jails were built for and intended to hold individuals awaiting trial, serving relatively short sentences or awaiting transfer to state prisons," declared a minority opinion signed by Mr. Dowlin and nine other commission members.
Capt. Charlie Profitt of the Butler County Sheriff's Office said counties already are being asked to house more serious offenders. A 1995 overhaul of felony sentences diverted some felons to jails to reduce crowding in state prisons.
Butler County's jail was designed to hold 152 inmates, Capt. Profitt said, but houses 190. Voters in November 1997 rejected a sales tax increase to expand the lockup.
"We understand why the state is doing this, but anything that puts more people in jail hurts us," Capt. Profitt said.
Ironically, judges lost their ability to sentence repeat misdemeanor offenders to prison when lawmakers revamped felony sentencing guidelines three years ago. Some judges and prosecutors have been complaining ever since.
Advocates of the new proposals say there is no reason to fear the scenario suggested by opponents because relatively few offenders would face the tougher sentences.
"We're talking about people who continually go into bars and pick fights or people who repeatedly drive while drunk," Mr. Diroll said.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters, who was elected state treasurer last month, said the costs of keeping serious offenders locked up should not dictate public policy.
Mr. Deters thinks crime rates have dropped nationwide, in part because states are keeping violent criminals in prison longer. The same strategy should work with the worst misdemeanor offenders, he said.
"Voters will eventually have to make a decision about funding these changes," Mr. Deters said. "You have to weigh the cost of incarceration vs. the cost to society."
State Sen. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green and a commission member, said he would introduce the misdemeanor reforms after the new two-year legislative session begins in January.
The 31-member panel's next task: revamping sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. Those recommendations were due in September but now aren't expected until next October.