Facing Penalties for DUI? New Ohio Sentencing Law May Benefit You

In Ohio, a drunk driving charge can go by many names. Officially, the Ohio state code identifies the offense of intoxicated driving as operating a vehicle “under the influence of alcohol, a drug of abuse or a combination of them,” or “OVI” for short. More common phraseology includes DUI (driving under the influence) and DWI (driving while intoxicated).

Regardless of what it is called, Ohio DUI penalties can be serious under Ohio law. Of course, the services of an Ohio drunk driving defense lawyer can help ease the burden on those accused of OVI. And for many DUI offenders, a sentencing law that recently went into effect could prove to be an added boon in avoiding the more serious consequences of an OVI conviction.

New Law Changes Ohio Sentencing Structure

House Bill 86 was signed into law by Governor John Kasich on June 29, 2011, and it became effective on September 30, 2011. The new law modified Ohio’s felony sentencing structure, and it also made some changes to the juvenile justice system.

Under the revised provisions, someone convicted of a first-time level-four or level-five felony will not be sentenced to prison. Instead, the individual will face mandatory community-control sanctions for a minimum of one year. These alternatives to prison may include local jail time, drug treatment, intensive probation, electronic monitoring or placement in a halfway house or other community-based correctional facility. However, if the offense of conviction was committed with a firearm, if physical harm was caused to another person during the offense, or if no appropriate community sanctions are available, the sentencing judge may resort to a prison sentence.

Also under the new law, maximum prison sentences for people convicted of third-degree felonies will be reduced to three years, provided that the crime was not an offense of violence, a sexually-oriented offense, aggravated vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault, repeat robbery or repeat burglary. House Bill 86 makes several other tweaks to Ohio sentencing law, including changes that will encourage efficient utilization of community corrections services.

Alternatives to Prison Encouraged

Passage of a law that reduces prison penalties is rather rare in a political system that tends to disfavor legislators who may be seen as “soft on crime.” But, there are strong policy reasons behind House Bill 86. Currently, Ohio’s prison system houses more than 50,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold just 38,000. The new measures are intended to help reduce prison overcrowding, making conditions more humane and rehabilitative.

Furthermore, a compelling body of research indicates that placing low-risk offenders (like those who will avoid prison under the new Ohio law) with high-risk offenders in a prison setting increases the odds that the low-risk offenders will become high-risk. Therefore, keeping people who are unlikely to cause public harm again in a community setting instead of prison is expected to reduce recidivism, or repeated criminal behavior. Finally, perhaps the most persuasive justification to constituents in these times of fiscal austerity is the cost savings that can be realized by reducing the prison population – the new law is estimated to save Ohio taxpayers $46 million.

Implications of House Bill 86 for OVI Offenders

Ohio’s new law affects the sentences imposed for many different crimes. But, due to the prevalence of DUI felonies and their generally non-violent nature, it is of particular interest to those charged with drunk driving.

In Ohio, even a first-time OVI conviction can be penalized severely. And, someone charged with a repeat OVI offense can face felony status and a heightened range of sentencing options.

For example, after being convicted of felony OVI once, any subsequent felony OVI conviction in a person’s lifetime is automatically a third-degree felony. In addition, a fourth or fifth OVI conviction within six years is a fourth-degree felony, and a sixth OVI within 20 years is also a fourth-degree felony.

For people facing a fourth-degree felony OVI conviction, though, the new law will likely mean diversion from prison. Even third-degree felony OVI convictions may result in a reduced prison term and better opportunities for taking advantage of community corrections services.

Unfortunately, House Bill 86 will not affect the sentences of people who are currently incarcerated. The law stipulates that it is only applicable to people who committed relevant offenses on or after the effective date.

If you have been arrested in Ohio on an OVI charge or for any other criminal offense, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. Your lawyer can explain how the new law may benefit you and devise a strong legal strategy for your defense.