At the end of 2020, the Ohio General Assembly put forth a concerted effort to reform and improve the state’s criminal justice system. In fact, Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law five separate bills focusing on criminal justice reform. While some of the more progressive proposals may have failed to pass the Ohio Legislature (specifically the proposed Ohio House Bill 3), the following five pieces of legislation recently went into effect.
House Bill 1 provides criminal justice reform on a variety of levels, but none more significant than its measures designed to reduce recidivism. HB 1 permits offenders convicted of low-tier crimes to participate in various intervention programs in lieu of serving jail time. Most notably, offenders with a history of substance abuse issues will have the opportunity to complete drug/alcohol treatment programs to avoid being incarcerated.
Here, having the option to complete rehabilitation in lieu of jail time will allow an offender to potentially resolve what is, in many cases, the true underlying issue. Further, HB 1 also provides simpler paths for individuals to seal convictions that would prohibit them from applying for jobs. For the offenders that are placed on probation, the bill also hopes to cut down on incarceration of individuals who violate probation.
The Fresh Start Act (House Bill 263) was designed to allow for offenders to obtain occupational licenses despite having a criminal conviction on their record. Currently, licensing boards have the ability to consider the criminal conviction of an individual regardless of the crime and the time that has passed since that individual’s conviction. Under the Fresh Start Act, licensing boards can no longer consider nonviolent, nonsexual offenses that occurred more than five or 10 years ago, depending on the industry. In doing so, the state of Ohio is eliminating the “blanket bans” that some licensing agencies have implemented that fails to take these circumstances under consideration.
Senate Bill 68 is designed to allow offenders who have outstanding administrative license fees to remove said debts by performing community service in lieu of paying fees. Often times an offender may lose their license for a traffic infraction. In doing so, the individual will incur fees that correspond to reinstating the license. The problem that often befalls individuals in this situation is that the original offense had fines and costs associated with it, and that person just lost their ability to drive to gainful employment.
Many times, offenders find themselves driving without a license in an effort to pay off fees only to be stopped for driving without a license, thus leading to new fees. Under SB 68, offenders can complete community service and remove themselves from such a vicious cycle.
Senate Bill 256 focuses on sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders. Under the bill, juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and will put forth a standard parole schedule for juvenile offenders.
Lastly, House Bill 136 excludes offenders who suffer from certain mental illnesses from being sentenced to the death penalty.
While some have argued that the recently passed bills lag behind more progressive criminal justice reform, it is safe to say that each of the five bills represent a step forward with regards to criminal justice reform in the state of Ohio.
Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.