We must cut into business of justice


I wasn’t the smartest kid in grade school.

Julius and Matthew were, and because of that, those classmates often got picked to skip classwork and do chores around the class — put up decorations; take down decorations — the cool stuff when you're a kid.

What I remember from Matthew and Julius being the smartest is that they weren’t beyond stacking the deck in their favor – perhaps too smart.

One memory is of them having to sort and separate all the tacks and pins used for a bulletin board display. I was watching them – out of jealousy, I suspect.

As they were getting to the end of their task – thus nearing the return to their desks and normal classwork with the sullied – they tipped over the containers of pins and tacks onto each other, into a mass pile. They thereby ensured more work for them.

That I’m recalling this fourth-grade event is no indication I’m in desperate need of counseling.

I am just in need of a little. Maybe more than a little.

This Tuesday, Issue 1 was soundly defeated in Ohio. But in its ashes, state lawmakers are talking major criminal justice overhaul. Thank you.

Our friends at the Dayton Daily News and especially reporter Laura Bischoff have done plenty of work on Ohio criminal justice. Among their findings:

In 2015, Ohio had more than 240,000 adults on probation – ranking Ohio third most in the U.S.

Ohio’s prison population remains stubbornly high, even though the number of people sent to prison has declined.

Ohio has one of America’s lowest three-year recidivism rates among its inmate citizens.

Over-incarceration is an American problem, too. On Tuesday, Americans took a big bite into reforms.

Florida citizens voted 65 percent in favor of Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to ex-felons in the state. People who have been out of prison 10 years or more, living proper and productive lives, have not been allowed to vote in Florida under a law that dates back to the 1960s and voter suppression tactics against blacks.

With Tuesday, more than 1 million more people can now vote in the state. In 2000, the Bush-Gore race that ultimately decided who would be president was decided by 500 Florida votes – while 1 million-plus votes sat on the sidelines.

In Louisiana, voters passed Amendment 2, which requires unanimous jury decisions for any felony conviction. The state had allowed majority-rules verdicts – a standard it created to get around the 14th Amendment, which allowed blacks to sit on juries. Of the state’s recent criminal exonerations, 40 percent of those had been imprisoned by juries that could not reach unanimous decisions.

Michigan, Washington and Colorado citizens also mandated reform Tuesday.

Citizens voted ...

In Ohio, Issue 1 didn’t work for voters. It had its problems, but no more than our current system. Hopefully, out of the dust of Issue 1, our leaders can take a hard look at our justice business.

Bischoff reported “Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, is working with two former political rivals – Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat – to come up with new solutions.” Rivals working together.

My word “business” above is intentional.

We spend millions upon millions on criminal justice. Those dollars are jobs: for nieces and nephews as clerks and administrators; for many suburban lawyers; for hardcore union guys in jails and police cars. And those dollars also become career jobs for judges and magistrates.

Additionally, the justice system creates spinoff economies – such as this speed camera garbage. The city of Norton, east of Canton, lives on $10 million a year. Last month, it wrote $1 million in speeding tickets – including $200 to this guy.

In Shaker Heights, you will pay $265 if they decide to cite you for talking on your phone while driving. (Not to this guy, but to a buddy.)

Why all of this? Why have we let this happen?

Some of it is community protection and safety. I get that. I believe in it. I even had to employ it in my own neighborhood a few weeks ago.

But is all of this about safety and protection? One million citizens in Florida who made a mistake 20 years ago paid their time, yet can’t vote? Massive overturned conviction rates in Louisiana? One million dollars in speeding tickets in 30 days?

To me, much of this over-justice is due to, well, the Juliuses and Matthews among us.

By dumping over the tacks and pins again and again, they created continued work that was more pleasing to them.

That, in too many ways, has become our legal system.

More inmates, stacked charges, three strikes, more pee tests, more court dates, fewer driving privileges, expensive fees, more fines, rapid-fire speed cameras ...

Sure, it creates a safer community. To a degree. We’re told that. And to a great degree, we experience that. Lots of things could create safer communities – such as jobs.

But over-justice also ensures and sustains an immense, lucrative and perpetual micro economy.

And we don’t hear that enough.

Perhaps in Issue 1’s defeat, state officials have heard enough to make change.

We have an Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission. It’s been on the books since 1990. Yet we still have the excessive stats that keep Bischoff reporting.

Change is a challenge when such an economy is attached, and the officials tied to making the change are attached to that economy.

In Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Colorado and Washington on Tuesday, citizens took change into their own hands.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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