September 26, 2021

White woman who stole $250K gets probation, while Black woman who stole $40K goes to jail. Disparate sentences spark calls for reform

Updated Aug 09, 2021; Posted Aug 08, 2021

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Two Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judges doled out disparate sentences this week to women who stole public money in separate cases, reigniting calls to create a statewide sentencing database to ensure judges mete out fair punishments.

A white woman stole nearly $250,000 from the village of Chagrin Falls. Judge Hollie Gallagher sentenced her on Monday to two years of probation. A Black woman who stole $40,000 from Maple Heights City Schools went before Judge Rick Bell, who sentenced her Tuesday to 18 months in prison.

Leaders of Black faith organizations, labor organizations, current and former judges and social activist groups all told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that the stark difference between the sentences damaged the credibility of the criminal justice system and reinforced the sentiment that judges disproportionately punish people of color or those without means.

All of the leaders called on Cuyahoga County’s judges and judges around the state to join an Ohio Supreme Court pilot project that would create a public database to make transparent how judges sentence defendants and provide guardrails on judicial discretion that often results in unequal justice.

Only 10 of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court’s 34 judges have said they plan to sign on to the program. Six of those judges are in their first term on the bench.

“It’s kind of hard to figure how you can end up with results that are so different for similar kinds of actions,” former longtime Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine said. “Cases like these point out the need for the system to do a better job of reviewing the data because there’s lots of disparity between the way that people of color and white people are treated. But it doesn’t get captured because nobody’s really looking.”

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Michael Donnelly, who spent 14 years on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas bench before ascending to the state’s highest court in 2019, and 8th District Court of Appeals Judge Sean Gallagher said the adoption of the database would move the state closer to identifying and correcting issues that contribute to disparities in sentencing.

“Are we satisfied with a system that would allow for two extremely different results like this?” Donnelly asked. “Is that good policy? Does it make the community more safe, when our sentencing laws allow for that disparity? We need to ask that question in Ohio.”

Both judges said that, while judicial discretion is important, the reaction to this week’s differing sentences shows the state needs to do more to ensure that judges punish people who commit similar crimes more equally.

“If there isn’t faith in the justice system that you’re going to get a fair shake, then that’s the biggest indictment against keeping the things the way they are,” Gallagher said.

The Debbie Bosworth case

Debbie Bosworth, a clerk in the Chagrin Falls village utilities and building departments stole more than $248,000 over 20 years by pocketing cash from residents’ utility payments and moving money from the building department to the utility department to cover the theft.

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