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Felony FAQ

Criminal Law / Felony FAQ

FELONY SENTENCING

Q: When I read about a criminal being sent to prison for four years, does it really mean four years?

A: Yes, with a few exceptions. For crimes committed since July 1996, the prison term imposed by the judge in open court is the prison term the offender will serve. This is called “truth in sentencing.”

Q: You mentioned exceptions. Is there a catch?

A: “Judicial release” is the most common exception. This allows a judge to send someone to prison as punishment and then, after sufficient time passes, order the prisoner’s release under community controls imposed and monitored by the local court. It requires a public hearing with input from victims and others. Of course, the vast majority of inmates are not granted judicial release. Most serve the actual time imposed by the judge at sentencing.

Q: I think I get it. Under Ohio’s “truth in sentencing” laws, the inmate usually serves the time imposed at sentencing. The key exception–judicial release–is also controlled by the sentencing court. But what about reductions granted by prison officials?

A: The General Assembly virtually eliminated prison officials’ ability to release offenders early, abolishing parole releases for most crimes and eliminating the practice of giving “good time” reductions for time served. Truthful sentencing required a shift in control from unelected administrators, who make decisions in private at the prisons, back to elected judges who impose the true sentence (or modify it) in open hearings.

Q: So why do I still hear about inmates being paroled?

A: Here’s the confusion. Parole release still occurs for two groups of inmates. First, “life” sentences are available for murderers and certain other serious criminals. Most life terms grant some opportunity for parole release after 15 years or more. These cases weren’t affected by the 1996 changes. Second, certain serious sex offenders receive “indefinite” sentences that are subject to Parole Board review. Third, the truth in sentencing law applies to acts committed since July 1996. Inmates sentenced under prior law remain eligible for parole. Remember, however, that even with these exceptions, well over 90 percent of Ohio’s prison inmates are not eligible for parole.

Q: Is “truth in sentencing” relevant to offenders who are not sent to probation?

A: Yes. If local sanctions are most appropriate for a felon, the judge must directly sentence the offender to them. Thus, for example, the judge might order the offender to spend four months in a community-based correctional facility followed by outpatient drug treatment, and to pay a fine. The judge warns the offender that a violation of these conditions could mean a prison term. This is much more direct than the law before 1996, which required the court to impose a prison term, suspend it, place the person on probation, and then list the various local sanctions. Also, the broader term for local sanctions since 1996 is “community control”. It is more accurate than “probation,” since it encompasses traditional probation as well as other residential, nonresidential and financial penalties.

GRAND JURY

Q: What is a grand jury?

A: The grand jury is a part of the Common Pleas Court system in Ohio. One or more grand juries sit in each Ohio county for a period of four or more months at a time all year round; grand juries meet every day in some counties, once a month in others. The grand jury is composed of nine persons and not more than five alternates. All are residents of the county and were randomly selected to serve, just as trial (or petit) jurors are selected.

Q: What is the purpose of the grand jury?

A: The grand jury actually has two purposes. First, it reviews criminal charges which have already been brought by the police and prosecutors to determine whether or not these charges are supported by probable cause (substantial probability that a crime was committed and that the individual charged committed it). By this so-called indicting function, the grand jury serves as a shield between an innocent accused person and an over-zealous prosecutor. It protects the accused person’s right to be free from unreasonable charges which can take away his liberty, harm his reputation, and cause him expense.

Second, the grand jury can initiate criminal charges after conducting investigations of possible criminal behavior within the county. To carry out this investigative function, the grand jury is given several powers: 1) its proceedings are secret (open only to a prosecutor, a recorder, and the grand jurors) 2) it can summon (subpoena) persons to appear and testify or to bring needed documents for the grand jury to review 3) it can punish those who fail to cooperate with the investigation by holding them in contempt and placing them in jail (unless the person has a valid claim that he is not required to submit to the grand jury’s inquiry). If the investigating grand jury finds probable cause to believe crimes were committed, it may issue indictments.

ARSON

Q: What is the legal definition of arson?

A: Arson is the crime of intentionally burning a house, building, vehicle, watercraft, aircraft or other structure that can be occupied. A conviction can result in a jail term and a fine.

Q: What prompts people to commit arson?

A: A variety of motives may prompt someone to commit arson, but trying to get money by making false insurance claims are certainly high on the list. For example, a 75-year-old Ohio woman was sentenced to six months in prison after she was found guilty of two counts of aggravated arson and one count of insurance fraud for setting fire to her bed and breakfast and then filing a false insurance claim.

Q: What happens to the money paid by an insurance company in such a case?

A: In order to be compensated in this case, the insurance company sued the arsonist for reimbursement. The sentencing judge ordered her to pay back the insurance company more than $13,000.

Q: What about the costs associated with the fire department’s response?

A: The costs associated with the fire department’s response, as well as its investigation, are reimbursable. In this case, the sentencing judge ordered the arsonist to reimburse the fire department more than $5,000.

Q: If a firefighter had been killed in the fire, could this arsonist have faced murder charges?

A: Yes. As with other crimes, an arsonist is responsible for the consequences of this criminal misconduct, including the death of firefighters responding to a fire that is deliberately set.

Q: What is the difference between arson and aggravated arson?

A: The crime of arson is intentionally burning a building. Often, however, the act of intentionally burning a building creates serious risk of harm to people as well. “Aggravated arson” is the crime of creating a substantial risk of serious physical harm to a person other than the arsonist. For example, someone who sets fire to an occupied building creates a substantial risk that, in addition of the harm the fire does to the building, a person or persons inside the building may be harmed.

Q: How are juvenile arsonists treated?

A: Depending upon the severity of the situation, and whether persons were harmed, penalties for juvenile arsonists vary. Juvenile offenders (especially first-time offenders) are referred to programs that deal with their fire-setting behavior. The youth meet with both mental health experts and fire-prevention specialists. First-time offenders also typically face community service assignments, while repeat offenders face confinement through the Department of Youth Services. In addition, many fire departments also have effective juvenile arson prevention programs for the purpose of preventing future arson.

Q: When fire departments suspect arson, what do they do?

A: Arson investigators, who are trained in determining the “cause and origin” of fires, will conduct investigations that may involve examining burn patterns, looking for gasoline or other accelerants, and interviewing individuals. If it is determined that the fire was deliberately set, evidence is collected and submitted for forensic and submitted for forensic analysis. Once an arrest has been made, the suspect is charged with a criminal offense. An arson defendant also may be sued in a civil action. For example, if the arsonist has tried to make an insurance claim for the deliberately damaged property, the insurance company may deny the claim and then bring a civil suit against the arsonist.