OHIO CASE ASKS, Is the goal of prison to punish, to rehabilitate or to find some balance of both?
Parolee’s better life ignored. Man sent back to prison after 13 months free.
BY DAN HORN Cincinnati Enquirer
Michael Straughn got a chance in 2005 to prove he could put his criminal past behind him when an appeals court cut his four-year prison sentence in half.
He returned to Cincinnati, got jobs at McDonald’s and a telemarketing firm, applied to college, got visitation rights with his 3-year-old daughter and stayed out of serious trouble.
His parole officer was so impressed he recommended ending Straughn’s parole a year early.
Instead, he went back to prison.
“I was devastated,” Straughn said. “I made such an effort to stay out.”
Straughn, 22, is caught in the middle of a complex fight about how Ohio’s courts sentence criminals to prison.
The dispute involves hundreds of prisoners whose sentences were reduced by an appeals court in 2005 and reinstated last year by the Ohio Supreme Court. The battle, which isn’t over, has left the inmates, their families and victims in limbo.
Straughn was one of the few inmates freed while awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision.
He’s now the focus of a new appeals court case that asks a question lawyers, judges, prison officials and others have debated for years: Is the goal of prison to punish, to rehabilitate or to find some balance of both?
Straughn’s attorneys say he proved during 13 months of freedom he could follow the rules, and that his conviction on kidnapping and robbery charges was an aberration he would not repeat.
“He was on the road to success,” said Wendy Calaway, Straughn’s attorney. “I’m not in any way trying to demean the seriousness of his offense. But if we believe the purpose of rehabilitation is to integrate people back into society, we accomplished that.”
Straughn made that argument to Common Pleas Judge Steven Martin last year when he returned for re-sentencing following the Supreme Court decision, which allowed, but did not require, imposing the original four-year sentence.
Prosecutors argued that Straughn’s crime – not his life since release – should be the main concern.
They said he still owed a debt to society for abducting and robbing a Cincinnati woman in 2003.
Calaway said Straughn lied about having a gun and forced the woman to withdraw $100 from an ATM.
Prosecutors also noted that, while on parole, Straughn was ticketed for driving without a license and possession of an open flask.
Straughn claimed he didn’t know his license was suspended while on parole, but prosecutors say it proves he still has trouble following rules.
“Those crimes … show that while Straughn may have gotten a job at McDonald’s, he has still failed to figure out how to lead a law-abiding life,” assistant prosecutor Scott Heenan wrote in an appeals court brief.
Martin didn’t dwell on the tickets in court, but he imposed the original four-year sentence.
“I thought the sentence was fair when I first gave it to him, and I thought it was fair when I gave it to him again,” Martin said. “He committed a very serious offense, and I gave him the sentence I thought he deserved.”
Anna Schmalz, who represented Straughn when he was sentenced, said Martin’s decision was a shock because he had indicated Straughn would likely remain free if he got a better job and stayed out of trouble.
“He was doing everything right and he got slapped in the face,” Schmalz said. “He is the poster child for someone who has been rehabilitated.”
Prosecutors, though, say it shouldn’t be a shock that a judge imposed the original sentence. It might be unusual for an inmate to be out for 13 months in the middle of that sentence, they say, but that doesn’t mean the sentence should be abandoned.
“As much as people would like to believe jail is about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters.
Straughn’s unusual case was made possible by a series of federal and state court decisions that overturned the rules judges use when sentencing criminals.
The shake-up began in 2004 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared sentencing guidelines in the state of Washington unconstitutional because they allowed judges to impose sentences based on evidence that might not have been presented to a jury.
That decision raised questions about similar guidelines in a dozen states, including Ohio.
Straughn and other inmates challenged their sentences and an appeals court concluded first-time offenders like Straughn should get minimum sentences.
The Ohio Supreme Court overturned that ruling and said judges could, in most cases, impose any sentence within the guidelines.
Most inmates ended up getting their original sentences, but a few got slightly less or more time. Straughn appears to be the only one in Hamilton County who was released and forced to return to prison.
His latest appeal argues that sending him back “violates the notions of fundamental fairness and justice.” He now is in the Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell, serving a sentence that will end in November 2008.
“I feel like a lost cause now,” he said. “I’m ready to get back out, to get my life back together.”