COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Rep. Jeff LaRe recalled a time he could fit a copy of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) on his person while patrolling the streets of Fairfield County as a sheriff’s deputy in the 1990s.
Today, after hundreds of iterations to the law, “that’d be like carrying around a set of encyclopedias,” the Violet Township Republican said.
Since 1980, the number of felonies in Ohio’s Revised Code has grown nearly fivefold, according to a Legislative Service Commission analysis. The ever-expanding laundry list of prohibited conduct – which jumped from 161 to 755 felony offenses in four decades – could, according to some public officeholders, have unintended consequences.
“It’s gotten longer and longer and longer,” former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer said. “And it’s hardly a great example of legal clarity.”
A longtime foe of the criminal code’s complexity, Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said the unnecessarily long, “out of control” document dictating Ohioans’ behavior leads to mistakes at trial, confuses jury members, and opens new pathways to incarceration.
Young pointed at two lame-duck bills, both considered by Ohio lawmakers in recent weeks, that would establish two new felonies: swatting and strangulation. Both are prime examples, he said, of actions that Ohio law already prohibits under umbrella terms like making a false report and assault, respectively.
“The reality is, if you’re talking about some sort of violent act in a community, it’s against the law already today and carries a long prison term if you’re proven guilty,” Young said. “Why do we keep legislating what is already against the law?”
In 2014, Young became vice chair of the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, or Recod for short, where he joined dozens of legal experts to devise a plan to clean up the verbose and redundant nature of the ORC.
“Some of the laws were written in the ‘60s, some in the ‘80s – they have different approaches to how the verbiage was used, which makes it confusing,” he said. “Some laws didn’t define whether you had to do it knowingly or recklessly, so we were charged with fixing all that.”
But freshmen lawmakers and those otherwise new to Ohio’s legal and political spheres, Pfeiffer said, aren’t always attuned to past generations of work concerning the prohibition or punishment assigned to a particular crime.
If introducing a bill that alters the criminal code, lawmakers must copy-paste the entire section of the code into the bill’s text, often resulting in dozens of pages of legalese that, according to Pfeiffer, “almost none of the legislators except the ones who have worked directly on that bill are going to read.”
“You take any new legislators who want to reinvent the wheel – they have no institutional memory of already been-there, done-that. They want to tinker,” Pfeiffer said.
LaRe, who heads the House Criminal Justice Committee, said he’s all for efforts to simplify the revised code. But, it’s a challenging feat that must be done without compromising lawmakers’ obligations to protect the public, he said.
Defining strangulation as its own felony offense, for instance, would bolster the severity of the crime in the eyes of the law to further support the four out of five domestic violence survivors who claim to have been strangled, according to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, while harshening penalties against their perpetrators.
“At the end of the day, you know, the General Assembly, myself included obviously, we have to do what we need to do to protect Ohioans, to deter crime, and to make sure that we provide justice for those victims that have suffered,” LaRe said.
Young said the creation of new felonies not only tacks on an additional item to prosecutors’ checklists when proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred; it also may serve to confuse a jury in a criminal trial.
Drafting new felonies – occasionally a result of term-limited legislators’ desire to appeal to voters by stamping their name on a bill, Young argued – is also a gateway to locking more Ohioans behind bars, he said.
“If you build it, they will come out,” Young said. “And in much the same way, you know, you build more laws to make more activity criminal, you’re gonna end up with more people charged.”
LaRe said the risk of incarceration and the long-lasting impacts of a felony conviction are top-of-mind for his Criminal Justice Committee. That’s something he and fellow lawmakers, he said, “take seriously and are sensitive to” when vetting proposed changes to the criminal code at the Statehouse.
“I’m all for anything we can do to simplify it,” LaRe said. “But at the end of the day, there’s something else that we’ve got to be mindful about: If we simplify the language, we don’t want to do so and create loopholes for criminals to take advantage of the way it’s written.”