There is a saying that you cannot please all of the people all of the time. This is particularly true when it comes to sentencing those guilty of a crime.
It’s understandable why sentencing is such a concern. For instance, if you or someone you know is personally affected by crime, you may feel like “throwing the book” at the guilty party is the best and only recourse.
Conversely, if you are the mother of a defendant, you may feel like your son/daughter should get a lighter sentence, a second chance.
No doubt, emotions run deep when loved ones are involved, no matter which side of the courtroom they’re on.
Then there are folks who see the crime (rape, murder, etc.), and immediately think, “lock them up for good.”
As a prosecutor, I know nothing is ever that simple, and it’s nearly impossible to please everyone.
Take for example, three very different defendants with three very similar crimes …
Case Number One: Stanford swimmer Brock Turner – Turner was found guilty of intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person. Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Turner to six years in prison. He was sentenced to six months in jail and three years probation.
Case Number Two: Martin Blake — A Montana judge sentenced Blake to 60 days in jail for raping a 12-year-old family member. Blake had been charged with three counts of felony incest. In exchange for the dismissal of two of those charges, attorneys negotiated a recommended sentence of 100 years in state prison, with 75 of those years suspended. The actual sentence was 30 years in prison, but the judge suspended all but 60 days.
Case Number Three: Jack Baggott — In Stark County, Ohio, Baggott, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for encouraging his wife to sexually abuse a child while he was in jail. Mr. Baggott’s attorney said his client reached the plea agreement to avoid a potential life prison term if convicted at trial. He said the evidence against Baggott was overwhelming.
What is going on here? A range of 60 days in jail to 11 years in prison seems too far a gap to be right, right? Well, actually, each of the sentences was legal. Judges have a tremendous amount of discretion when handing down sentences. They also have a number of options and a number of rules to follow. Any sentence a judge hands down, however, must be within the parameters of the Ohio Revised Code sentencing guidelines. The ORC provides a range of prison sentences for various levels of crimes. It also sets forth many factors that judges are required to consider, questions they must ask. Is the offender’s conduct more or less serious than conduct normally constituting the offense? Is the likelihood of recidivism high? And the list goes on.
With all that goes into sentencing, it’s no wonder I get so many questions on the subject. Be it via phone, email, my website or Facebook page, I receive many communications, usually concerned messages about specific sentences. People want to know why I, or one of my prosecutors, didn’t give a defendant a longer sentence.
My reply is always the same. Prosecutors and defense attorneys can do no more than provide relevant information to the court. Sometimes attorneys recommend a sentence, but it’s the judge that makes the final decision. The judge may, or may not, agree with any recommendation. In all cases judges rely on the information provided, his/her sense of the defendant, and the facts of the case.
The purpose of felony sentencing is two-fold — one, punish the offender, and two, protect the public from future crime by the offender. To achieve this, the court considers the potential need for incapacitating the offender, deterring the offender and others from future crime, rehabilitating the offender, and if money is involved, paying back the victim, the public, or both. There is a lot to consider, and each case is different.
Just imagine you’re on the bench. Two defendants stand before you. They have both committed the same crime — stolen items from a home. One has a long history, a pattern of criminal activity. The other has no criminal history. Do they deserve the same sentence?
In Ohio, the law requires that a sentence shall not demean the seriousness of the offender’s conduct and its impact on the victim, and it must be consistent with sentences imposed for similar crimes committed by similar offenders.
Speaking in plainer terms, I know no sentence can ever bring a loved one back, erase an act of violence, restore someone’s sense of security, or replace a stolen family heirloom. It’s not a perfect system, and while sentences may not please all of the people all of the time, I like to think we help those affected by crime. Sometimes, something as simple as listening to a victim can help them on their path to survivorship, and I, and all in my office, work each day with that in mind.
Carol O’Brien is Delaware County Prosecutor.