Ability to pay – whether it’s a cash bond or restitution – shouldn’t guide court decisions: editorial

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The moral story of Karla Hopkins against Debbie Bosworth – two public sector workers given very different sentences for theft in office by two different judges in Cuyahoga Common Pleas County – can teach us a lot about how justice works in life. real.

One point to remember, as stated in a recent column by Eric Foster, a member of our editorial board: different judges convict differently and take different factors into account in their sentencing decisions.

This is a strong argument, as we have already editorialized, for requiring judges to participate in a centralized database of criminal convictions, at length discussed but still not in existence. Knowledge is power, and in the case of the judiciary, would be a powerful incentive for judges to apply their sentencing philosophies consistently and fairly.

But additional factors underlie the disparity in sentencing between Hopkins and Bosworth. Both women were convicted of a third degree felony. Both had otherwise blank files. But Hopkins received an 18-month sentence for his theft of $ 42,000 from Maple Heights schoolchildren over one year, while Bosworth received two years of probation for pocketing $ 248,000 in money from Chagrin Falls over 20 years.

In other words, the person who stole nearly six times as much public money over a 20 times longer period of time walked out of the courtroom and out of the house while the other woman went to jail.

Take out the details, and what these sentences really show is that the money is talking about. Cuyahoga County Joint Pleas Judge Hollie L. Gallagher told Bosworth that if she returned the money before her sentencing date, she would not serve her sentence. As a result, cleveland.com’s Cory Shaffer reports, Bosworth donated over $ 200,000 from her state pension, then – on the day of her conviction – wrote a check for $ 100,000, money she had collected after selling. family’s 2018 Jeep and have taken a plunge. in savings. This allowed him to escape the handcuffs and the orange jumpsuit.

Gallagher gave Bosworth a Get Out of Jail Free card simply because Bosworth had the money to make a full refund. This is wrong at first glance. The next employee to pocket a quarter of a million dollars will bear no harm, no fault if he or she has a bank account large enough to write a check.

Hopkins, on the other hand, was unable to repay using her public pension fund since she had previously emptied it – a fact that appeared to weigh on her conviction by the county pleadings judge. from Cuyahoga, Richard A. Bell, who told him, “You knew you had stolen money. You did not use this money [in her public pension] to pay the restitution you knew you owed.

However, Hopkins says she liquidated her pension, Shaffer reports, only because her bills were so pressing after she was fired for her theft. Shaffer also discovered from public records that Hopkins, who had a gambling problem and mental health issues, according to his lawyer, lost his home in 2009 and then, in 2018, was evicted for non-payment of rent. . Yet she still managed to find $ 5,000 to begin restitution before her conviction on August 3. Bell has since scheduled a September 13 hearing to determine whether to grant Hopkins early release.

Both women violated public trust and acted badly in their crimes and in the bad personal choices that contributed to their decision to steal. Both should pay a penalty. But it is irrefutable that one woman, a white woman, had resources – and the other, a black woman, did not. The woman who stole more had plentiful assets that she could use to pay off those from whom she stole. The woman who stole the least lacked these means.

Restitution is an important part of the justice system. Those who steal, who cause property damage, who destroy another person’s livelihood by their criminal actions owe those they attacked and profited for a fair repayment. But restitution cannot be a means of avoiding other consequences.

As Shaffer noted in an analysis of the widespread practice of using restitution as a mitigating factor in sentencing, “a consequence of this long-standing practice [according to critics] is that it exposes the poor to harsher prison sentences more than those who can afford to pay back quickly. And in Cuyahoga County, where US Census Bureau data shows black people are more than three times more likely to live in poverty than their white neighbors, it risks leading judges to disproportionately punish black defendants, critics said. “

The “critics” are right. Count our editorial board among them.

Cash bail has become a barometer of inequity in the justice system – those with property go home to await trial, those without stew in jail while often losing their livelihoods and sometimes even their home before they had the chance to defend themselves.

Likewise, the ability to pay restitution should not be the sole determinant of sentencing. As with the ability-to-pay hearings that low-income defendants should have – but they often don’t – judges, when considering restitution in sentencing decisions, should consider the issue. underlying ability to pay of a defendant. No two crimes are exactly alike, but the pleas of two defendants are not exactly alike either.

About our editorials: Editorials express the point of view of Editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer – senior management and editorial staff. As is tradition, editorials are unsigned and are intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.

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