CLEVELAND – The Ohio Black Judges Association Inc. (OBJA) expresses strong support for the Ohio Supreme Court’s plan to allow public access to a proposed database of criminal convictions compiled, among others, by race, as noted in a recent article that appeared in The Plain Dealer. Unfortunately, our support puts us at odds with the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, which opposes public access to the database.
In its final report, published in 1999, the Ohio Commission on Racial Equity (OCRF) found that “the consensus of available research recognizes that minorities are more frequently sentenced to prison terms and generally receive tougher than whites.
At the time, the commission recommended that Ohio courts be mandated to compile criminal conviction data and to maintain such data in relation to all criminal convictions, including those involving felonies, misdemeanors, juvenile delinquency and trafficking cases. The commission also recommended that treatment of this information not be limited to sentences that resulted in incarceration, but also include sentences that resulted in community control sanctions.
These recommendations were ignored for more than 21 years. Not much has changed in the interim period. Anecdotally, since then, many of our members continue to note obvious racial disparities in sentencing, but have no way of knowing what drives their observations. Our members believe that collecting and analyzing this critical information, for good, is a first step towards assessing and correcting any disparities.
The OCRF final report also stated that “institutional commitment to a process of regular and continuous data collection, analysis and reporting, as well as the accountability of organizations and individuals will eliminate the excuse of ‘lack of ‘information’ as a convenient shield for those who prefer to hide their inability or unwillingness to ensure equal treatment for all involved in our state’s criminal justice system and to serve as a weapon for equal justice for all … »
Our members across the state are keenly aware that the lack of data prevents legitimate inquiry into the extent to which racial justice is, or is not, a reality in Ohio. At a minimum, the existence of an open-access criminal convictions database will make all judges making sentencing decisions aware of the potential for implicit bias, where it exists, and reassure them of their positive practices, where This is not the case !
The position taken by the Common Pleas Judges Association calls for worst-case speculation regarding occasional misuse of the database, while overlooking the overwhelming benefits to be realized in the majority of situations where the database is accessed. Aggressively promoting viable efforts to increase public confidence in our courts and seek accountability of the justice system for all are OBJA’s primary motivations for supporting public access to the database.
We would like to assume that the vast majority of members of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association have nothing to fear from public access to their sentencing practices. If this assumption is incorrect, the case for creating and maintaining the database is even stronger.
There may be legitimate reasons for racial or other disparities that have nothing to do with prejudice. If so, having the database will help identify them. Similarly, if the sentencing practices of individual judges suggest the need for practice adjustments, then that fact should be brought to the attention of those judges and the public should be able to follow their progress in eliminating any explicit or implicit bias found.
OBJA supports mandatory public compilation, analysis, and access to sentencing data by race, as recommended by the final report of the OCRF and the Ohio Supreme Court Sentencing Commission. We believe that only transparency can deliver true justice.
Ronald B. Adrine, a retired administrative judge and president of the Cleveland City Court, is chairman of the communications committee of the Ohio Black Judges Association.
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