LISBON - A local judge testified before the state legislature in support of a bill that would allow judges to again have more discretion when it comes to sentencing first-time offenders convicted of low-level non-violent crimes.
Testifying last week before the Ohio House Judiciary Committee was Columbiana County Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike, who voiced his support for the bill introduced by local state Rep. Nick Barborak that seeks to correct a previous bill passed in 2011 by the legislature.
The 2011 sentencing-reform law, among other things, required judges to impose probation for some first-time offenders convicted of non-violent fourth- and fifth-degree felonies. The legislature amended the bill in 2012 to restore sentencing discretion in seven instances, but Barborak's bill goes even further in giving judges even more latitude when handing out punishment.
Pike, in his testimony, cited a local case he handled that involved a man charged with swindling six local couples out of several thousand dollars after fraudulently representing to them that he worked for a company that has leased thousands of acres in the county in recent years for oil and gas development. The man was convicted of the charges, which are fourth- and fifth-degree felonies, but because of the law, Pike was only able to sentence the defendant to a limited time in the county jail, followed by additional time at a prison-alternative facility.
"While that may seem substantial, some members of the public could have easily regarded the sentence as something less than what this individual really deserved, and, frankly, I agree," Pike said.
Although unable to attend, county Prosecutor Robert Herron submitted written testimony in support of the bill. He said local law enforcement is often criticized when a drug dealer can be sentenced to a treatment program for their addiction instead of prison time.
"People are surprised, however, to learn that the hands of those on the front lines, prosecutors and judges in these cases, have been tied by the legislature," Herron wrote, adding many first-time offenders are back in court within a year, after being charged with committing new crimes.
Barborak, D-Lisbon, in a news released issued by his office, said the bill has broad bipartisan support, with the only opposition coming from the state Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. He believes the original bill was designed to shift the incarceration costs from the state to counties by reducing the number of people being sentenced to state prisons, and that is not only unfair but contributes to the local crime problem by leaving more offenders on the streets.