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Former Sentencing Statute Held Unconstitutional

2003-0464 and 2003-0595. State v. Peoples, 2004-Ohio-3923.
Franklin App. No. 02AP-363, 151 Ohio App.3d 446, 2003-Ohio-151. Judgment affirmed in part and cause remanded.
Moyer, C.J., F.E. Sweeney and Pfeifer, JJ., concur.
O'Donnell, J., concurs separately.
Resnick, Lundberg Stratton and O'Connor, JJ., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/newpdf/0/2004/2004-Ohio-3923.pdf

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(Aug. 11, 2004) The Supreme Court of Ohio today ruled unconstitutional a former provision of state law that effectively denied felons serving five-year prison sentences early judicial release while allowing felons serving longer sentences to seek and obtain an early release.

In a 4-3 decision, the court affirmed a ruling by the 10th District Court of Appeals that declared the former sentencing provision unconstitutional (and therefore unenforceable) on equal protection grounds, and upheld the early release from prison of Columbus resident Leo Peoples.

In January 1998, Peoples entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison for a felonious assault on a police officer, a second degree felony. An additional mandatory 3-year term, to be served consecutively, was added to his sentence because a firearm was used. In October 2001, three years and nine months after he was sentenced, Peoples applied for early judicial release from prison. The trial court granted him a judicial release in March 2002, after Peoples had served slightly more than four years of his total sentence.

The state appealed the release, pointing out that the statute in effect when Peoples was sentenced in 1998 permitted offenders serving terms of less than five years to apply for judicial release after they had served a minimum of 180 days in prison, but required that felons serving sentences of from five to 10 years must serve a minimum of five years before they were eligible to apply for judicial release. (NOTE: The statute containing this provision, former R.C.2929.20(B)(3), was amended effective October 23, 2000 to provide that persons receiving five-year sentences from that date forward would be eligible to apply for early release after serving a minimum of four years in prison).

On review, the 10th District Court of Appeals agreed that the pre-2000 version of the statute required Peoples to serve a minimum of five years before he was eligible to apply for judicial release. The court went on, however, to concur with decisions by three of four other appellate districts that had considered the issue in holding that the former statute was unconstitutional. The appellate panel ruled that the law explicitly included offenders serving five-year sentences among persons deemed eligible to apply for early judicial release, but then unreasonably excluded those prisoners from any possibility of gaining an early release by making the minimum time they must serve before applying for release the same length as their full sentence – five years.

Because of this contradiction, the 10th District ruled that the former statute violated the equal protection clause of the Ohio Constitution by unreasonably denying one class of prisoners (those serving five-year sentences) early judicial release from prison while extending that privilege to other classes of prisoners, including those found guilty of more serious offenses and therefore serving longer sentences of up to 10 years.

In today's majority opinion, written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, the Supreme Court applied a “rational-basis” standard under which it said “a statute will be held constitutional ‘if it bears a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest.'”

“The overwhelming purposes of felony sentencing are to protect the public from future crime … and to punish the offender,” wrote Justice Pfeifer. “We conclude that denying judicial release to offenders sentenced to five years while allowing it for offenders sentenced to longer prison terms is not rationally related to public safety or to punishment.”

“The state also has a legitimate interest in containing the costs of criminal sentences,” he added. “We fail to see how preventing offenders sentenced to exactly five years from applying for judicial release helps contain costs when it requires the state to pay the costs of incarcerating offenders for a longer period of time than if they were judicially released. The state has not provided and we can not conceive of other grounds that provide a rational reason for disparate treatment within the classification,” he concluded. Justice Pfeifer's opinion was joined by Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and Justice Francis E. Sweeney. Justice Terrence O'Donnell entered a separate concurring opinion.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick entered a dissent that was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Maureen O'Connor. While acknowledging that the former statute “may have been inartfully drafted,” Justice Resnick agreed with the 9th District Court of Appeals' ruling in State v. Vincer , which found that the minimum five-year imprisonment requirement “is rationally related to the state's legitimate governmental interests, … protecting the public and punishing the offender.”

“Contrary to the majority, I would find that the General Assembly's decision to draw the statutory line where it did in the former statute is entitled to deference, and that no equal protection violation is present,” wrote Justice Resnick. She also noted that, in affirming Peoples' eligibility to seek early release after serving only his mandatory three-year firearm term and one year of his five-year sentence for assault, the majority had applied a more lenient standard than the legislature set in its October 2000 revision of the judicial release statute. Under that version, Justice Resnick observed, Peoples would not be eligible for early release until March 2005.

Steven Taylor, 614.466.3555, for the state of Ohio.

Luis Delos Santos, 614.466.5394, for Leo Peoples.