MARIETTA - More than a year ago, Ohio legislators passed House Bill 86, effectively changing the parameters for certain felony offenses and drastically overhauling the way judges can sentence convicted felons.
One of the largest impacts was that the law essentially took prison off the table as a sentencing option for fourth- and fifth-degree felons, said Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider.
A prison sanction in still available in a handful of cases including when the crime involved a firearm or an act of violence or when the offender has previously served jail time or has violated the conditions of his bond, he added.
"Whereas before we had more flexibility to get a prison sentence, now it's almost impossible to get a prison sentence for fourth- and fifth-degree offenders, even repeat offenders," added Assistant Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings.
For example, Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Susan Boyer sentenced Lloyd D. Nicholson, 49, of 4525 Sparling Road, Waterford, in April on a fifth-degree felony drug charge.
Nicholson was already under community control sanctions and had previous felony convictions for breaking and entering and trafficking in drugs. However, he was merely sentenced to an additional five years of community control.
At the time, Boyer cited HB 86 as the reason for the light sentencing.
"The legislation has now decided you should be given an opportunity to prove to yourself, your family, and this community you can be a law abiding citizen," she said.
The law also lessoned the sentencing mandates for third-degree felons, added Schneider. Previously, third-degree felons could receive one to five years in prison. After the passage of HB 86, the sentencing recommendation was lessoned to a spectrum of six months to three years.
Now that prison sentences are essentially off the table for fourth- and fifth-degree offenders, and lessened for third-degree offenders, Schneider and his office have had to change the way in which they approach felony cases. Rather than wasting county resources on costly trials for fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders, the prosecutor's office is more likely to try to make plea agreements, said Schneider.
In May, timing helped Deborah L. Miller, 43, of 102 Woodcrest Lane, avoid a prison term. Before HB 86 was passed, she was accused of embezzling $8,580 from customers at the bank where she worked and charged with a fifth-degree felony count of theft. However, she was sentenced after the law went into effect, and received only 45 days in the county jail from Boyer.
The sentence was much less severe than that received by similar previous offenders, said Schneider.
"Judge Boyer had a pretty consistent record of sending people who embezzled from their employers to prison," he said.
Prosecutors are not the only ones bearing the brunt of the changes. The bill has frustrated judges and has county jails and drug counseling services nervous that they will be stretched to their limits.
In September, Boyer expressed her exasperation over the law when she was unable to sentence a Belpre man to jail after he pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, a fourth-degree felony.
"At this point, the court does not have available to it the option to send you to prison. Let me be clear, if the court had that option, you would be going to prison," said Boyer to 24-year-old Nicholas Leach.
The reasoning behind the law was that it would lessen the population burden on the state prison system, said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.
"You had some harsh sentencing that was leaving some lesser offenders, like first-time drunk drivers, going to prison alongside murderers and rapists," he said.
Thompson said he has heard concern that the law would lead to overcrowding in county jail systems, but that hasn't happened locally to date.
Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks agreed that the Washington County Jail has not seen the effects of overcrowding yet, but that does not mean it will not eventually happen.
"It takes a little while to get those cases adjudicated. We're really not seeing the full effect of that sentencing change yet," said Mincks.
However, drug counseling facilities are already seeing the effects of the change, something that has concerned Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Ed Lane.
"I do not have any problem with trying to get treatment for first-time drug offenders. My problem is they haven't provided any funds for local treatment. It's getting harder and harder to get into the SEPTA center," said Lane.
Future Washington County Common Pleas Court Judge Randy Burnworth, who will begin serving in January after Boyer retires, shared Lane's worries.
"A community our size does not have a lot of resources that a lot of the other bigger counties do. We do not have a lot of options other than the county jail and the SEPTA system," he said.
The law, which received bipartisan support when passed last September, will not likely undergo any significant changes despite the criticism, said Thompson.
And prosecutors and judges are slowly getting used to the changes.
"It's negatively impacted our office, but I certainly understand the reasoning behind the law," said Schneider.
It could take some time to see if the law has its intended effect on the prison population. The week the law was passed, Ohio's prison population was 50,334. As of Tuesday, that count was 49,789, down only 545 inmates. But lawmakers are hopeful that given time, the impact will be more evident.
"Long-term we believe we will see the benefits of the bill," said Thompson.