State Data Platform to 'Tell Full Story' of Criminal Sentencing in Ohio

The Ohio Supreme Court and the University of Cincinnati agreed Monday to "tell the full story" of criminal sentencing in Ohio as Chapter 1 of the larger march toward comprehensive criminal justice data. Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said the state's current "swamp" of unknown or disparate felony sentencing will present a clearer picture when the Ohio Sentencing Database Platform (OSDP) is complete.

O'Connor gathered at the Ohio Judicial Center with UC President Neville Pinto; 6th District Judge Gene Zmuda, chairman of the OSDP Governance Board; Allen County Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Reed, the data pilot's early adopter; Judges Jaiza Page of Franklin County Common Pleas Court and Andy Ballard of Lawrence County Common Pleas Court, participants in the ongoing pilot; and Executive Director Sara Andrews of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission (OCSC), whom O'Connor praised.

"Had it not been for you, this idea would not even have gotten off the starting blocks," she said of Andrews, who has led OCSC for seven years and rolled out the sentencing database in June. (See The Hannah Report, 6/28/21.)

Andrews said OSDP will allow the state to compare county-by-county sentencing outcomes reflecting varying "community standards" around law enforcement, criminal prosecution and punishment.

"Available and searchable data transcends any one branch of government. It is the only objective way to make sure what we're doing works and is or isn't achieving the intended results," she said. "The reality is we're suffering from the cumulative effect of tinkering with sentencing structure on limited data sources and on a crime-by-crime basis. Consequently, we have amassed an exceedingly complex sentencing structure."

Zmuda called sentencing both complicated and "taxing" to judges with broad discretion at the local level.

"We have one felony sentencing statute, cumbersome as it is," he said. "But that law is being applied by 244 judges across our 88 distinct counties."

Zmuda said the uniform sentencing entry (USE) developed by O'Connor's USE Ad Hoc Committee is not "static" but rather a "living document" to ensure judicial sentencing "fully conforms to current law." He said 34 judges from more than a dozen counties are now on board with USE, though all courts aren't currently able to interface digitally.

"It's no longer, 'Can we do this?' Rather, 'How shall we do this?'" he observed, saying OSDP will be the nation's first such database when complete. Ballard agreed, calling Ohio an "innovator."

"It will allow us to tell for the first time the full story of trial courts' felony sentences…," said Zmuda, "to make sure judges are properly proceeding in sentence" with a "full and fair administration of justice."

Reed said how a given judge reaches a particular sentence is not always apparent to court participants.

"Unfortunately, it might even be misunderstood by the person being sentenced," he said. "When the portal goes live, it will help reveal the reason, the story behind felony sentencing in Ohio."

Page and Ballard said the pilot has illuminated their approach to the penalty phase.

"It's making me think about my sentences in a different way and ensuring … sentences that I impose are no different based on any personal biases I may have or any issues that I see," Page said. "Sentences are being imposed based on the facts and the story that is presented to me."

O'Connor said OSDP is less about sentencing as a practice and more about "people's lives" -- an effort dating back to the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer's Racial Fairness Commission.

"That doesn't mean this project is all about race. What we want to do, and what we need to do, is erase the conjecture about felony sentencing in our state. We're not striving to meet a narrative," the chief said. "The narrative will reveal itself as this project goes forward."

O'Connor joined Pinto in signing the following declaration:

"The OSDP project is designed to tell the story of sentencing in Ohio. That story begins when judges integrate the uniform sentencing and method of conviction forms into their existing court processes, which will for the first time provide statewide, reliable and accessible information on sentencing outcomes."

O'Connor forecast the larger revolution in data-informed criminal justice.

"We're starting with sentencing; it is the beginning, not the end," she said.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on October 4, 2021.  Copyright 2021 Hannah News Service, Inc.