Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
National Association for Sentencing Commissions
Aug. 13, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Monday, August 13, 2018, at the DoubleTree Suites in Columbus, Ohio.)

Thank you, Sara, for that introduction and thank you for bringing this conference here to Columbus.

I understand this is the first time the National Association of Sentencing Commissions has been held here in Ohio and we are pleased to welcome you. I specifically want to thank you, President Wright, and say welcome to the Buckeye State! I applaud the work of the Commissions across the country that focus on sentencing and criminal justice reform.

Sentencing Commissions have played an important role in the evolution of thinking regarding a topic I’ve championed on a national stage, namely, in trying to  eliminate the courts’ use of fines, fees, and bail to keep offenders behind bars often for petty offenses when they are not a flight risk or a danger to the community ...

This practice does not reflect who we are as a community of legal professionals and should not define our court systems.

We know that our courts should NOT be about making money, it’s about making fair decisions.

How do we change the indiscrimate use of fines, fees and bail that has been part of the culture for so long?

As is often said, old habits die hard. Your Commissions have a unique role in contributing to the very real, and often contentious conversations between the three branches of government in the pursuit of a just and fair criminal justice system.

 Fines, Fees and Bail is but one area that needs your voice. It is an important one.

Criminal justice issues or problems cannot be solved by a bail schedule, the indiscriminate imposition of fines and the failure to develop sanction that are altenatives to loss of money. 

The use of a bail schedule and failure to fairly assess the human being standing before the bench contributes to failure of our legal systems.

The greatest danger to our justice system is the loss of trust and respect by our citizens.  The notion that courts are not fair, that they are only interested in collecting fines and fees, and that the inequity is tied to race and economic factors.

This loss of confidence in the justice system is too often due to self-inflicted wounds.

Our legal system’s very foundation is ‘justice for all’.   Where is the justice in a bail schedule that is used as a substitute for judicial decision making?

Does a bail schedule take into consideration factors and information that is relevant to the purpose of bail? 

You know the answers to those questions.

I’m very proud of the work done on this subject by the CCJ/COSCA Task Force on Fines, Fees,&Bail. I co-chair that Task Force.

 Many jurisdictions in the country are rethinking their past practices on the topic thanks to the work of the Task Force and other organizations specifically targeting the injustice of past practices.

It is a documented truth that holding a person pre-trial can result in loss of jobs, housing, support and family. 

 

So what is the alternative?

The judiciary has reports and tools, in fact a variety of tools known as risk assessments to help it when making a bail decision. 

No judge wants to release a defendant pretrial only to have another more serious crime committed.  That however is an illegitimate reason to perpetuate the bail schedule.

Reports based upon credible data point to the fact that depriving a person of his/her freedom, pretrial, will contribute to the demise of that person who cannot afford to post an arbitrary amount for bail.
Detention pre-trial should be the exception and not the rule. And it should be based on the purposes of bail, to insure attendance at hearings and trial and to protect the public.

Decisions regarding bail must be made after an assessment using a bona fide risk assessment tool and the  human elements must remain---understanding of facts and circumstances as well as the law.

Only then can fair and proper solutions be developed and implemented.

In Ohio, like many other states, the obligations of the Commission include a duty to share information, spark conversation, enlighten minds, and move ideas to solutions.

These solutions advance public safety, ensure fairness in sentencing, preserve judicial discretion, provide a meaningful array of sentencing options, and distinguish the most efficient and effective uses of correctional resources.

In short, the work of Commissions is dedicated to enhancing justice and ensuring fair sentencing.

In Ohio, we have our challenges.

Criminal justice data can be mismatched and complex.

Local and state agency data systems lack connectivity and sharing agreements are underutilized.

But we are focused on solutions.

We are working with several jurisdictions to capture and analyze case disposition and other criminal justice data which we believe will lead to a statewide centralized platform to define, catalog, and analyze criminal justice data.

Once we have it, that data will lead to the development of policy options to enhance public safety.

Commissions like yours narrow the differences and champion justice.

The work and focus of Commissions continues to evolve, just as expected, considering the concoction of dynamic politics and people.

It has been the case over and over, that a  strong Commission can assist a state in navigating the bumpy constitutional road of not only sentencing but so many more issues inherent in our criminal justice system.

We are happy to report that in Ohio, our sentencing Commission has entered a collaboration with law enforcement and the Council of State Governments to pioneer a project designed to establish, and then measure, jail recidivism.

An indispensable role for sentencing commissions is to assemble and analyze what is needed  to assess the impact of policy and legislative actions – and follow up with sensible cost-benefit decisions and well-reasoned recommendations and guidance.

Sentencing commissions, including Ohio’s, provide a forum for experts who can be responsible to the distinctive needs of their jurisdictions, while pursuing a level of fairness and rationality that can be particularly  elusive in the legislative heat of the moment.

Commissions are consensus-driven platforms for the development of policies, practices, and legislative criminal justice reforms that maximize public safety, reduce recidivism, and wisely spend tax resources.

Having a state sentencing commission is not a luxury — it’s a necessity.

So it must be credible, purposeful, useful, and relied upon for its wisdom.

Commissions are most often comprised of passionate, ordinary people considering extraordinary circumstances and situations.

Your only vested interest in the outcome is a collective will to equalize and preserve justice.

You seek bipartisan, relevant, current, informed processes and outcomes through creative solutions.

One of the intrinsic values of Commissions is their contributions which inform decisions about budgetary priorities that are the responsibility of the governors and legislatures.

Commissions should be free to  propose, vet, and advance the best and most impactful recommendations for sound public policy.

The expectation is the development of proactive recommendations that change lives AND deliver on the fundamentals and principles of sentencing.

Once again I commend Sara Andrews and her colleagues for inviting an impressive list of speakers for this conference.  Sara is a nationally recognized leader and we are fortunate to have her leading the Sentencing Commission in Ohio.

I hope that you will leave this conference not only richer for having met colleagues from across the country but also because you’ve shared your experiences, ideas, successes and yes failures with each other. Share, learn, collaborate and succeed.

Thanks to each one of you for developing fair and effective sentencing and criminal justice policy.

You are championing a cause that we all highly value — to provide justice for all.

God Bless.