Last Tuesday, something happened in Ohio that should shock the conscience of every American. After a seven-day jury trial, Kelley Williams-Bolar was found guilty of two third-degree felonies — with a sentence of five years in prison each. Williams-Bolar must have done something pretty heinous, right?
In fact, Williams-Bolar (a 40-year-old African-American single mother and teaching assistant for kids with special needs), was found guilty of two counts of tampering with court records — because she put her father's address on her daughters' school enrollment forms in order to send her kids to a better school. Williams-Bolar says she is not guilty of the charges because she and her daughters split their time between her housing project apartment in Akron and her father's home in suburban Copley Township — which has a school district with a better reputation — to care for him after he had a stroke. The judge in the case, Patricia Cosgrove, sentenced Williams-Bolar to five years in prison for both charges to run concurrently, but then suspended her sentence to 10 days in jail, three years of probation, and community service.
A few credit hours short of a teaching degree, Williams-Bolar's conviction comes with an additional punishment: under Ohio law, a felony conviction will prevent her from obtaining her teaching license.
When the school first discovered the discrepancy in addresses, it asked Williams-Bolar to remove her kids, repay the difference in cost to attend the better school ($30,500), or face criminal charges. She refused the first two options, maintaining her innocence due to her dual residence, and was then indicted and brought to trial. She was also offered the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge, but she did not do so — as she believed she was innocent.
There is much to be said about this case. The Internet is bubbling with blogs and Twitter posts discussing elements of racial inequality as they relate to the case, the economic and educational disparity it highlights, and any possible prosecutorial zealousness involved. There has been much finger-pointing at the prosecutor and the judge.
But one issue that doesn't appear to be getting much attention is how this case illustrates the absurdity of our nation's criminal justice laws. It is simply unreasonable that legislation in Ohio dictates a sentence of five years in prison for putting allegedly false information on a school form. It is also unreasonable that this action is a felony — a categorization that should be reserved for the most serious of crimes. The fact that such a sentence also prevents its recipient from obtaining a professional license is worthy of outrage. Already, people convicted of felonies are made unemployable — given the label of criminal and forced to disclose that status on employment applications. Stripping these individuals of the ability to obtain a work license just makes their employment prospects even worse.
If our criminal laws made sense, Judge Cosgrove wouldn't have needed to suspend Williams-Bolar's sentence and we wouldn't be asking questions about why the prosecutor took her to trial or why Williams-Bolar didn't plead to a lesser charge when she had the chance. Even if we thought Williams-Bolar's actions should be a crime, the law should have classified her actions as a misdemeanor or addressed them with a civil penalty. A suspended sentence doesn't mean that her prison time goes away. If Williams-Bolar commits any violations — perhaps even something as minor as failing to show up for a weekly check-in — during her three years on probation, she could end up in prison.
Some may argue that Williams-Bolar should have paid the fine or pled to a lesser charge to avoid jail time. But it is patently illogical to think that a single mother of two who lives in the projects could afford to pay a $30,500 fine. Asking people to pay fines they couldn't dream of affording and then jailing them when they don't pay results in a debtors' prison system — which is not only unfair, unjust, and unreasonable, but also unconstitutional. (Check out our Debtors' Prison Report, if you haven't already seen it). And blaming Williams-Bolar for not pleading to a lesser charge is also not the answer: she shouldn't be facing a felony charges that carry five years in prison in the first place.
It might seem that 10 days in jail is just a slap on the wrist — no big deal. But for a single mother supporting two daughters and living in a housing project, 10 unpaid days puts a serious dent in the budget. As does the unpaid time she had to take off for the seven-day jury trial, the preparations for that trial, and her arrest. And of course, the felony conviction will follow Williams-Bolar forever — she'll have to declare it on employment forms, college applications, and public housing applications. For single mothers, this kind of sentence is a sentence to a life of poverty.
These types of criminal justice policies have resulted in the disproportionate overcriminalization of communities of color, in Ohio and nationwide. Black adults are four times as likely as white adults and 2.5 times as likely as Hispanics to be under correctional control. And even upon serving one's criminal sentence, the government has erected voting, employment, education, and public benefit barriers to those labeled felons. It is no wonder that the criminal justice system is now seen as the new Jim Crow, given disproportionate representation of communities of color in the system and the enormous collateral consequences imposed on these communities.
These types of unreasonable criminal laws also have fiscal implications for the state (i.e. you - the taxpayer). Prosecuting and defending criminal cases is extremely expensive — for example, in one Ohio county, the cost of prosecuting criminal cases exceeded $42,000 per hour. Undoubtedly, Williams-Bolar's seven-day jury trial had a high price tag for Ohio state and county taxpayers. Add to that the cost of her arrest, trial preparation (including hiring a private investigator to film hours of tape showing her daughters getting on a school bus to the better school), her probation ($3,694 for three years), and the $700 to keep her in jail for 10 days. These are just a few of the costs — and they will likely total more than the amount Williams-Bolan was accused of defrauding the school system.
Ohio spends $1.8 billion on corrections, and its prisons are already 30 percent over capacity. This bloating is due to imprisonment of more nonviolent offenders. Third degree felons like Williams-Bolar account for 24.5 percent of felons imprisoned in Ohio, and 60 percent are low-level nonviolent offenders. To house this growing population, Ohio will need to spend almost an additional $1 billion by 2018. (For more stats like this, see the ACLU of Ohio's terrific report on overincarceration).
Spending this kind of money to prosecute and jail someone for putting the wrong address on a form at a time in history that is the biggest financial dip since the Great Depression is astoundingly foolish. Not only will the state pay thousands to make a lesson of Williams-Bolar, sentences like hers are economically crippling entire families, helping bankrupt our governments, and perpetuating racial and economic inequality.
Similar laws, cases, and statistics have prompted the national ACLU and our affiliates across the country to be even more proactive in reforming our nations' criminal justice system. The ACLU of Ohio is hard at work to reform Ohio's system. Ohio's legislature is now considering broad reform of its criminal justice system. Though Gov. John Kasich has referenced some less progressive reform possibilities, he has made it clear that corrections reform is on the table, which is a step in the right direction. Proposed legislation S.B. 22 was before the legislature last session, and it's likely that a similar bill will resurface this year. The ACLU's campaign seeks to reform Ohio's and other states' criminal justice system and end this country's addiction to incarceration that results in overly punitive sentences like that of Williams-Bolar.
Williams-Bolar's story highlights the problem of over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders in our criminal justice system. But rather than throw up our hands in despair, cases such as this confirm that the ACLU's efforts toward smart criminal justice reform that both protects public safety and is fair and are cost-effective are essential. Our dedication to these initiatives is unwavering.