Justice for all

Ridenour, William L.

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Justice For All By William Ridenour According to a report in the Columbus Dispatch Newspaper on April 30, 2012, there were over 4,700 prisoners still incarcerated in Ohio who were sentenced under the law in effect prior to 1997 ("Old Law"). This figure is unlikely to change according to the chairwoman for the Ohio Parole Board, Ms. Cynthia Mauser, "because we're 16 years from Senate Bill 2, most people suitable for parole have already been released." (Source: The Columbus Dispatch, April 30, 2012, p.B2). This despite the fact that the average cost per year to house each prisoner is approximately $22,836. The projected annual cost to house these Old Law prisoners in $107,329,200. This cost will be at least triple for elderly prisoners who routinely require expensive medications and medical treatments. There are currently over 6,800 prisoners incarcerated in Ohio who are 50 years of age or older. This particular group of prisoners account for an estimated 15% of the overall prison population. A report from the Human Rights Watch found that "older inmates are more likely than younger ones to develop mobility impairments, hearing and vision loss... and chronic disabling and terminal illnesses." Prisoners who continue to age in prison will eventually require assisted-living and nursing-home level care. The new get "tough-on-crime" policies of the parole board are the primary reason these prisoners remain in prison, despite the fact that most of them are too old and infirm to threaten public safety if they were released. While many elderly prisoners are housed at Hocking Correctional Institution ("HCI") in Nelsonville, Ohio, many others are housed in other prison facilities. The misguided practice of housing elderly prisoners among extremely violent and mentally disturbed prisoners had been linked to an increase in violent assaults against the elderly. The incidents of violence and sexual assault are frequently directed toward the elderly and other vulnerable groups of prisoners. Indeed, most elderly prisoners routinely live in an environment where violence and terror reign, and where they are subject to the constant threat of extortion and violent attack by other prisoners. Most incidents of assault against the elderly go unreported to prison officials because of fear and intimidation. Ironically, the elderly victims of assault and the offenders are often equally punished under prison rule violations for fighting. Some of these elderly prisoners live in a constant state of fear because of the ever-present threat of violent assault by other prisoners. Release of parole for a majority of these prisoners is exclusively within the discretion of the Ohio Parole Board ("Board"). Most of these prisoners have minimum sentence terms of fifteen years or less and most have served in excess of triple their minimum sentence. The reason frequently quoted by the Board to explain why so many prisoners are still incarcerated after sixteen years of granting parole to other Old Law prisoners whose crimes, prior conviction record, and other relevant criteria are virtually indistinguishable is that the remaining prisoners are the "worst-of-the-worst." This convoluted logic appears to presuppose that the Board has already paroled the "worst" of Ohio's prisoners, leaving only the worst-of-the-worst. Such distorted reasoning seems to have been created to disguise the as yet undiscovered underlying forces influencing Board decisions. In the Ohio Revised Code effective prior to 1997, the Board has been empowered to use its judgment to determine when someone convicted under the Old Law becomes suitable for release on parole. The relevant statute provides that the Board may grant "a parole to any prisoner, if in its judgment there is reasonable ground to believe that, if ... the prisoner is paroled, such action would further the interests of justice and be consistent with the welfare and security of society." (Section 2967.03 of the Ohio Revised Code). This statute has historically been interpreted to mean that the Board has unfettered discretion in parole matters. This parole statute gives the Board some guidance in exercising its discretion. For instance, the statute provides that the Board "may investigate and examine ... prisoners confined in state penal or reformatory institutions concerning their conduct therein, their mental and moral qualities and characteristics, their knowledge of a trade or profession, their former means of livelihood, their family relationships, and any other matters affecting their fitness to be at liberty without being a threat to society." ld. This last criteria has been referenced in parole decisions as the justification for virtually all parole denials for Old Law prisoners. The "other matters" are invariably identified as the "serious nature of the crime." While the criteria of "other matters" is undefined by the statute, the underlying theme throughout this statute is that the Board is required to seek reasons to justify granting parole to a prisoner rather than searching for reasons to deny parole. The Board appears to have disregarded the explicit intentions expressed by the Ohio Legislature in O.R.C. 2967.03, in which it provides that if "the prisoner is paroled, such action [will] further the interests of justice." The concept of "justice" has historically been defined as "the proper administration of laws and the constant and perpetual disposition of legal matters or disputes to render every man his due." (Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition 1991). The principles of justice cannot be served when men and women in Ohio enter into plea agreement contracts, in which the prosecutor leads each defendant to believe that if he or she pleads guilty they will serve only the minimum sentence term imposed by the trial judge, then years later the Board unilaterally decided to require the prisoner to serve his or her maximum sentence term. It was consistently the practice of the Board prior to 1997 to honor plea agreements and release prisoners on parole at or near their minimum sentence term. It has been estimated by the Ohio Bar Association that 85% of all convictions in Ohio under the Old Law were the product of plea agreements. These agreements were primarily based on the mutual understanding between the State and defendant that the minimum sentence term would be the actual length of time served in prison. The maximum sentence term under the law in effect prior to 1997 was intended to be a deterrence to promote change in the parolee's future behavior. It was never intended by the Legislature for prisoners to serve the maximum sentence term. The practice in Ohio prior to 1997 of requiring prisoners to serve the minimum sentence term was the accepted standard for "justice" in the judicial system and remained so for over four decades. Under the Old Law defendants entered into plea agreements with the understanding that if they abided by prison rules and demonstrated positive behavior, they would be released on parole after serving their minimum sentence. The current policies of the Board undermine this longstanding practice in Ohio. The board has all but abandoned the minimum sentence term in favor of requiring Old Law prisoners to serve their maximum sentence. For most Old Law prisoners this is effectively a life sentence without parole. For example, Drexell A. Greene ("Greene") was convicted in 1990 of murdering his live-in girlfriend. He was subsequently sentence to 15 years to life imprisonment. The trial court did not find any aggravating circumstances involved in the crime and there were no other charges against Mr. Greene. Indeed, his particular case was characterize by the Board as a "heartland" case, which is most often referred to in the judicial system as a "crime of passion." At his parole hearing in 2007, Mr. Greene was granted parole by the Board only to have it taken away allegedly because of new information concerning his offense of conviction. However, witnesses present at his full-board parole hearing testified that there was no credible new information to warrant revoking Mr. Greene's parole. Although the Board voted by majority to vote to grant Mr. Greene a parole after serving over 17 years on his 15-life sentence, his parole was stopped with a single vote from the chairwoman, Ms. Mauser. Currently, Mr. Greene is 57 years of age and he will have served over 25 years' incarceration when he has his next parole hearing in 2015 -- ten years beyond his minimum sentence term. His prison record is stellar and he has been a model prisoner for over 23 years, and he has earned extensive educational degrees, certificates, and honors. Mr. Greene has participated in numerous institutional programs such as Anger Management, Effective Communications, Criminal Addictive Behavior, Self-Esteem, and Alcohol & Drug Abuse programs. Indeed, Mr. Greene's lack of criminal history and institutional record indicate that justice would be best served if he were among the first prisoners to be granted parole. Our forefathers held the ideals of "justice" in such high regard that it was preeminent to the general welfare of the public in the Preamble of the United States Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more Perfect Union, establish JUSTICE, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." (emphasis added). While no one denies that the victims of crime have an inherent right to justice, it is equally important to recognize that every individual convicted of a crime in Ohio has his or her right to justice. The current parole practices of the Board suggest that over 4,700 Old Law prisoners have been denied their Constitutional right to justice and due process of the law. Most Americans can remember a time when we solemnly pledged out allegiance to the flag of the Unites States of American with an oath that concluded with these poignant words "with liberty and justice for all." So many brave Americans have fought and died for the noble ideals embodied in these sacred words. The underlying meanings behind these words have been disgracefully distorted by the Board, twisted into its own misguided interpretation of justice. The current parole practices of the Board continue to be justified with empty and meaningless slogans. This has prompted an overwhelming number of Ohioans to voice their belief that the Board's distortion and abuse of the law should no longer be tolerated by Ohio lawmakers.

Author: Ridenour, William L.

Author Location: Ohio

Date: November 12, 2018

Genre: Essay

Extent: 3 pages

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