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3News Investigates: Ohio court database targets racial disparities in the criminal justice system

Cuyahoga, Summit and Lake counties have joined a pilot program tracking criminal court cases.

CLEVELAND — One Chagrin Falls clerk faced 22 criminal counts of money laundering. tampering with evidence and theft in office, all for stealing about $250,000 from taxpayers.

A second worker, from Maple Heights schools, faced a single count of theft in office for stealing about $40,000.

They each admitted guilt and faced different judges. Debbie Bosworth, a white worker who stole more, was able to pay back what she stole and received probation from Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Hollie Gallagher.

Karla Hopkins, a Black worker who couldn’t pay it back, was sent to prison for 18 months by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Richard Bell. Hopkins was released from prison a month later amid public criticism.

The sentences were handed down within weeks of each other, and the disparities of race and class did not go unnoticed.

"People really were just trying to figure out how it was possible that these two very similar cases could be handled in such a different way," Danielle Sydnor, president of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP, said.

For many, it was perception colliding with reality, but retired Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ron Adrine says the public only saw a snapshot of justice delivered by two judges with different mindsets.

"The public perception was certainly that both of them engaged in something that shows the system is rotten," Adrine told 3News Investigates, "and you can understand when you put the cases side by side."

That moment doesn't tell a complete story. It can't. While the perception of two courts for two races is well known, data to support or refute the belief has never been compiled.

That database is something Adrine and others have been campaigning for over 20 years, ever since the release of the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness in 1999.

"The one thing you know without fear of contradiction is that if you don't have information, then there's no way to know where you've been," he said.

Adrine chaired the commission which found disparities in courtrooms for Blacks and whites, but they urged Ohio to collect data to better understand why and how. That was more than 22 years ago and "as it relates to that, not much" has happened with the findings."

It took a national reckoning forged by George Floyd's murder at the hands Minneapolis police to spark renewed demand. Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor spearheaded the move and, in an interview with 3News Investigates, said the timing and the technology is right.

This fall, a pilot project with the Ohio Supreme Court and the University of Cincinnati is creating the most comprehensive sentencing data base in the U.S. Data comes from a handful of courts around Ohio, including Cuyahoga, Summit and Lake counties.

Right now, it's voluntary, and not all judges have signed on. Fourteen of Cuyahoga's 34 judges have declined.

"They believe this is going to be a 'gotcha' instrument," O'Connor said.

But she assured reluctant judges that the data won't track judges by name. Only their sentences will be counted, along with other outcomes such as plea deals, public defenders and bail.

The hope, O'Connor says, is to identify any discriminatory practices and provide a colorblind sentencing guideline for judges to use.

"Why do we do this? Because that will provide transparency and a view into our criminal justice system that we don’t have now."

Neither Bell nor Gallagher would comment about their respective cases, contending that the women they sentenced remain on probation. Hopkins and Bosworth did not respond to requests for comment, and Bosworth's attorney declined to speak with us.

Cuyahoga County's Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan would not discuss the data base. He instead offered only a statement: 

"Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judges have been in conversations about the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform for quite some time. On December 7, 2020, I invited Judge Gene Zmuda and Sarah Andrews of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission to speak to our Bench.

"During the presentation, they asked for some of our Judges to take part in the pilot. There have since been several follow-up conversations with the Commission and we have hosted the first site visit. The commission never intended for all of our Judge to participate, as this is a pilot phase. We look forward to moving forward in the process."