Ohio Appeals Court Vacates "Pregnant Prisoner" Sentence

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
April 6, 2000 12:00 am

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CLEVELAND — An Ohio appeals court today vacated the sentence of a prisoner who appeared to have received a longer jail term because she expressed the desire to terminate her pregnancy while incarcerated.

In October 1998, the prisoner, Yuriko Kawaguchi, was sentenced to sixth months in prison by Judge Patricia Cleary for her role in a credit card scheme. Remarks made from the bench during the sentencing hearing, as well as irregularities in the way in which Kawaguchi was transferred to prison, suggested that her sentence was enhanced because she expressed the desire to terminate her pregnancy while incarcerated.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation took her case, appealing her sentence, and filing a separate lawsuit against Judge Cleary and several other county employees, based on the claim that Cleary had attempted to coerce Kawaguchi into carrying her pregnancy to term.

Today’s decision by the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Judicial District (Cuyahoga County) deals only with the sentence imposed in October 1998. In a two-to-one split opinion, the Court of Appeals today held that Judge Cleary sentenced Kawaguchi without following the proper sentencing procedures required by Ohio law.

The Ohio Revised Code (Section 2929.19) establishes the proper mechanism for sentencing those convicted of fifth degree felonies (the least serious sort). Ordinarily, these comparatively minor crimes result in the imposition of “community control sanctions” and not prison time. The law requires judges to consider a number of factors before imposing a prison term for minor felonies, and to formally list their reasons for imposing a prison term for minor felonies, rather than the less severe community control sanctions.

The Court of Appeals today held that Judge Cleary failed to follow the proper procedures in sentencing Kawaguchi because she neither considered the many factors required by law, nor listed her reasons for choosing to sentence Kawaguchi to six months in prison.

The Court of Appeals did not reach the question of whether Judge Cleary had sentenced Kawaguchi as a means of forcing her to carry her pregnancy to term, in violation of her constitutional rights.

Ordinarily, said Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio, a court will not reach constitutional questions if its can overturn a case on statutory grounds as happened here. The case now returns to the Court of Common pleas for proper sentencing.

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