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Officials debate whether Ohio’s new indefinite prison sentences will help

Friday, August 30, 2019



The elected prosecutors for Mahoning and Trumbull counties say a law named after Reagan Tokes, a murdered Ohio State University student, will make Ohioans and prisons safer, but Ohio Public Defender Tim Young says it just makes prison sentences longer.

Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains said the law, which started to affect sentencings recently, will give prisoners an incentive to better behave in prison because inmates will be sentenced to a range of years — instead of a definite number.

For example, Ryan Rulong, 27, of Girard, was sentenced to 39 to 40 1/2 years in prison early this month for shooting into a crowded bar and robbing a gas station. That is called an indefinite sentence. Prior to Reagan Tokes, his sentence would have been for a definite number of years.

Reagan Tokes calls for a judge to sentence an offender to a specific number of years in prison for a first-degree or second-degree felony but also indicate that the sentence can be one-half times longer if warranted.

The judge in the Rulong case ordered him to serve three years in prison on his most serious offense, but that term could be 4 1/2 years depending on his conduct in prison. The judge was not permitted to give Rulong an indefinite sentence on more than one crime, only the most serious one.

Reagan Tokes presumes that an offender will get the minimum sentence, but it allows the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to ask the judge to consider a possible reduction in the sentence for good behavior.

It also allows the prison system to ask the sentencing judge to keep the offender in prison up to the maximum length of the indefinite sentence if the offender’s behavior is bad.

“It certainly makes them behave better in prison,” Gains said of this type of sentencing. As for arguments that longer prison sentences don’t help, Gains said: “Some people cannot live in society and need to be segregated from society.”

Ohio had a different type of indefinite sentencing law prior to 1996 that included sentences such as 10 to 25 years. Today, most crimes except murder and child rape result in a definite sentenced of up to 11 years.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said he believes Reagn Tokes is beneficial but it doesn’t go far enough, and he would prefer the law in effect before 1996.

Watkins cites the case of Christopher Daniel, 50, who along with a co-defendant broke into a Warren home in 1988. Daniel was convicted of attempted murder for throwing a brick at the head of one of the homeowners, Katherine Melnick, 64, then assaulting her with an axe handle until she was unconscious. It left her permanently blind and caused numerous facial fractures and a brain injury.

Daniel also was convicted of aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery and got 10-to-25-year sentences on each. He also got 7 to 25 years for being part of Melnick’s husband’s murder for a total sentence of 37 to 100 years.

If Daniels committed those crimes today, even with Reagan Tokes, his maximum sentence would be about 42 years, which would not be enough, Watkins said.

When Daniel was sentenced, the judge gave him indefinite sentences on all four convictions. Under Reagan Tokes, a judge can give an indefinite sentence on only one of his or her convictions, even if there are multiple victims.

“That is inadequate,” Watkins said. “It does not go far enough. It ought to be indefinite on all of the counts.”

State Sen. Sean O’Brien of Bazetta, D-32nd a former assistant prosecutor under Watkins, was a joint sponsor of the Regan Tokes Act, but also is a partner in a well-known criminal-defense firm.

O’Brien said he thinks the act will have “a very positive impact,” not only for inmate behavior in prison but also for efforts to rehabilitate inmates to live a productive life after prison.

“What kind of person do you want getting out” of prison, O’Brien asked. The Reagan Tokes Act enables defense attorneys to to advise their clients about to go to prison to “get in there, do the programs, work on bettering yourself and you may be able to come out a better person,” O’Brien said.

But Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, whose office provides defense to low-income defendants in Ohio, including many in Trumbull County, says Reagan Tokes is “a really, really expensive experiment in mass incarceration that has very little to no public safety impact.”

He said there is “almost zero evidence that making prison sentences longer makes people safer. The reality is once you reach a certain amount of [prison] time, there is almost no gain by adding more time onto top of that.”

Most people “age out of crime” and already have an incentive to behave in prison and better their lives afterward, he said.

“There is zero evidence that taking the amount of time we already put them in prison and adding time to that does anything. There is good evidence that longer prison sentences don’t help.”