When Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Laurel Beatty sentenced a man this month to four years in prison for a fatal road-rage incident, she also approved him for an early-release program.
It turns out that the defendant had no chance of being accepted into the program.
Beatty said last week that she didn’t realize that Coy R. Hannah’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter, a third-degree felony, made him ineligible for admission to an Intensive Program Prison, or IPP.
By state law, only those convicted of certain third-, fourth- and fifth-degree felonies can be evaluated for entry into the program, said Trevor Clark, staff counsel for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Among those deemed ineligible are inmates who "caused or attempted to cause actual physical harm to a person," the law states.
"Just because a judge approves an individual for IPP does not automatically mean they will be placed in the program," Clark said. "A lot of times, judges don’t check to see if the person is eligible by statute for the program."
The Intensive Program Prisons offer "concentrated, rigorous" 90-day treatment tailored to an inmate’s needs, including therapy for drug and alcohol abuse. Those who complete the program are released for time served, then placed on parole for up to a year.
If they violate parole, they can be returned to prison.
Every felony-sentencing form signed by a Franklin County judge includes a place for the judge to indicate whether he or she approves, disapproves or makes no recommendation about the inmate’s placement in IPP.
If a judge disapproves, the prison system doesn’t consider the inmate for the program. If a judge approves or offers no opinion, prison officials review the inmate to determine eligibility.
Only a select group of inmates receive early release through IPP. For instance, of the 23,191 inmates who entered the Ohio prison system last year, 712 successfully completed the program.
Franklin County Common Pleas judges vary in how they handle the check boxes on sentencing forms.
Beatty said she checks "approve" or "disapprove" depending on the individual defendant’s background and the facts of the case.
In the case of Hannah, convicted of fatally beating another motorist, David L. White, in August 2010, the judge said she was influenced by his lack of a criminal record.
She wasn’t bothered when she heard that he can’t enter the IPP.
"Even if I check ‘approve,’ it’s always up to the discretion of (the prison system)," she said. "I’m leaving it up to them. If he’s not eligible, he’s not eligible."
Charles Schneider, the administrative judge, said he almost never offers an opinion about IPP at sentencing because that means the prison system must check with him before placing an eligible inmate in the program.
"I like to decide each on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Many of those who aren’t eligible for IPP can apply for what’s known as judicial release.
Under a law approved by the Ohio legislature in 1996, an inmate sentenced to prison for 10 years or less, unless serving mandatory time, can apply for judicial release after a set number of days or years behind bars.
The judge who sentenced the inmate reviews the request and decides whether to grant early release. If judicial release is granted, the inmate is placed on probation for up to five years and can be sent back to prison to complete his sentence if he violates probation.
The rules for judicial release will change Friday, when a new law, House Bill 86, takes effect. The new law allows judicial release for some inmates with sentences of more than 10 years.
That’s one of many elements of the criminal-sentencing reform bill, which is designed to reduce the prison population by several thousand inmates in the next three years. It won’t affect IPP, but it will increase other opportunities for early release.
The law will divert some nonviolent offenders, including drug offenders, to community programs, give inmates the chance to earn up to 8 percent credit off their sentences by completing treatment and training programs, and allow the release of inmates, with court approval, after they have served at least 80 percent of their sentences.
"There is plenty of evidence that suggests for low-level felonies, prison isn’t the best option," said Schneider, who supports the new law.
The key, he said, is to make sure that community-based treatment and transitional programs are available for those diverted from prison or granted early release.
"I laud the goal of reducing the prison population," he said. "But I’m not sure they’re taking the money they’re saving and putting it into the treatment side of the equation."