Woman’s release from prison comes amid focus on sentencing

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Early prison release for a woman following an outcry over disparate sentences has come amid a renewed push for a statewide sentencing database in Ohio.

At issue is an attempt to give judges more information about similar cases to allow more uniform sentences across Ohio.

A former school secretary in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights was granted judicial release Monday by a judge who in August sentenced her to 18 months in prison for stealing $42,000 from the city’s school district.

Cuyahoga County Judge Rick Bell converted Karla Hopkins’ original Aug. 3 sentence to 43 days in jail, which equals the amount of time she previously served. Hopkins, 51, must get a job, not gamble and repay the $42,000 as well as the cost of a state audit.

Hopkins’ sentence drew attention when it was compared with that of Debbie Bosworth, a former Chagrin Falls village clerk who was sentenced to probation on Aug. 2 by a different Cuyahoga County judge for stealing nearly $240,000 over a 20-year period. Hopkins is Black, and Bosworth is white.

Leaders of Black faith organizations, labor groups, current and former judges and social activists highlighted the two sentences as justification for changes to the state’s sentencing process.

“Are we satisfied with a system that would allow for two extremely different results like this?” Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, a proponent of a statewide sentencing database currently under construction, said last month.

Bell said he told Hopkins’ attorneys at her August sentencing he would consider and give judicial release if a plan for her release was in place.

The plan includes counseling, an agreement to pay monthly restitution, to get a job and maintain employment, to abstain from gambling and to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

“It was the right thing to do, and it was what I intended to do all along,” Bell said of giving Hopkins early release. Bell said he himself maintains his own sentencing database to try to avoid such disparities. A message was left with Hopkins’ attorney.

The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission is spearheading the database project. Judges who participate can can enter multiple factors into the database, such as the number of victims in a crime or whether restitution was paid, and then draft a sentence by comparing it to those given in similar cases statewide.

Judges in seven counties are piloting the database, including Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Lake, with judges in an additional six counties, including Hamilton and Summit, signing on for eventual participation. The majority of state judges have yet to sign on.

On Tuesday, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner, running for the court’s chief justice seat next year, said completion of the database would be a top priority if elected. Such a database should include everything from data on similar crimes to information on defendants’ race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and if known, ethnic background and religion, Brunner said.

“We don’t just want anecdotal examples,” said Brunner, a Democrat. “We want data on pretrial and sentencing practices that will relate to demographic characteristics of Ohioans in the state’s criminal justice system.”

A variety of methods should be used to figure out what is happening in courtrooms, Justice Sharon Kennedy, a Republican also running for chief justice, said in a statement. That includes the sentencing database, along with figures already collected by “criminal justice partners” and information in judges’ master-sentencing entries. She did not define what she meant by criminal justice partners and didn’t respond to a follow-up question about it.

“My commitment to every Ohioan is that I will use all resources to achieve these goals,” Kennedy said.

Current GOP Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor can’t run again because of age limits; she turned 70 this month, the age after which judges may not run. O’Connor is also an advocate of the sentencing database.


Associated Press Writer Mark Gillispie in Cleveland contributed to this report.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press