Inmates challenge law that could keep them locked up longer

Attorneys for two imprisoned men argue Ohio prison officials shouldn’t be able to extend certain inmates’ time behind bars because they say the 2019 law allowing that is unconstitutional

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio prison officials shouldn't be able to extend certain inmates' time behind bars because the law that enabled that is unconstitutional, attorneys for two imprisoned men argued Wednesday before the state Supreme Court.

At issue is part of a 2019 law that lets Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction argue for the parole board to keep some felony offenders in prison past the minimums of their sentence ranges due to bad behavior or indications they haven't been rehabilitated.

The law, which the state defends as constitutional, was named for Reagan Tokes, a college student abducted, raped and murdered by a man on parole in 2017.

Two men imprisoned in cases unrelated to that crime are contesting the law. Christopher Hacker is serving time for aggravated burglary, and Danan Simmons Jr. was sentenced on weapon and drug charges.

A previous ruling in a different case allowed offenders like them to challenge the law even before DRC officials might move to extend their sentences. The outcome of their cases could impact dozens more, as the high court is holding more than 60 cases until it decides these challenges.

Hacker and Simmons argue the provision violates the constitutionally outlined separation of powers between the judicial branch, which issues sentences, and the executive branch, which includes the prisons department. They say the provision allows the executive branch to act as prosecutor, judge and jury, and infringes on the right to a fair trial by not ensuring protections such as the right to an attorney during proceedings about extending a sentence.

“The executive branch has now carved out some of the judicial pie,” Cullen Sweeney, a public defender representing Simmons, said in arguments Wednesday.

The inmates also say the law doesn't give offenders adequate notice of what could land them in hot water with the DRC and possibly lead to an extension. Attorney Stephen Hardwick, representing Hacker, called the standards “vague and meaningless,” and said an infraction as simple as being early for lunch could be used against an inmate under the law.

The state argues that the separation of powers remains intact because the DRC cannot keep offenders beyond the maximum time to which they were sentenced.

The Supreme Court justices focused on that part of the law during the arguments and questioned how it could be unconstitutional if a judge's decision — not DRC or the parole board — is still what determines the maximum sentence.

The state also said the right to a fair trial before a jury doesn’t apply to the parole board hearings at which extended sentencing decisions would be made, and argued Wednesday that kind of DRC hearing is not much different that a normal parole board hearing.

Samuel Peterson, an attorney who represented the state in the Hacker case, noted that parole decisions have long considered prison conduct in decisions about whether to grant release. Legislators who passed the law clearly wanted “to provide incentive to offenders to try to work toward rehabilitation,” he said.

The state also maintains that DRC rules explain bad conduct and its consequences and give offenders proper notice of what behavior could lead to a longer prison sentence.

Decisions in the two cases are not expected for months.

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Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.