Barborak working on amending law regarding judges

LISBON – State Rep. Nick Barborak is working on further amending a law that he says requires judges to sentence non-violent, low-level felony drug offenders to probation instead of prison.

Barborak said the legislation he is considering drafting would once again give judges full discretion when it comes to sentencing these types of offenders. “Judges and law enforcement are in a better position to determine who should be in prison,” he said

The bill passed two years ago by the Ohio General Assembly revised the criminal sentencing laws, and Barborak was not in the legislature at the time. A former assistant county prosecutor, Barborak praised much of the bill, but he is troubled by one provision addressing first-time offenders convicted of non-violent fourth- and fifth-degree felonies. The provision requires the judge to place these offenders on probation if prison-alternative treatment programs are available in the community, which is the case in Columbiana County.

The state legislature attempted to correct the problem, passing a bill in December that went into effect last month. Barborak was aware of the most recent bill and looked into it, and he said the changes restored sentencing leeway for judges in most low-level felony cases but was largely silent on drug offenses.

“With the new rules that exist, when a (low-level drug) crime doesn’t involve violence or a weapon, the judge’s hands are all but tied,” he said.

Barborak said first-time felony drug dealers may have an extensive misdemeanor record that the judge is prohibited from taking into consideration when passing sentence, which has the “the unintended consequence of putting drug dealers back on the street … My position is those decisions should be left in the hands of judges and law enforcement and not in the legislature’s.”

When the bill was passed one of its stated intentions was to save money by reducing the state prison population by diverting more felons to local probation and treatment programs.

The reforms appear to be having the desired effect, with the state reporting an overall decline in the number of criminals being sentenced to prison.

The decline is negligible in Columbiana County so far. The number of criminal defendants sentenced to state prisons from the county was 127 in 2010, the last full year under the old law. The figure was 121 in 2012, the first full year the law was in effect. The number of fourth- and fifth-degree felons sentenced from the county declined only slightly over the same period, from 62 to 59.