Local judges rarely release prisoners early

Number of Inmates Release Early from Prison 2009-2011

Butler County Judges

Craig Hedric 6

Andrew Nastoff 8

Patricia Oney 4

Charles Pater 5

Noah Powers 39

Michael Sage 5

Keith Spaeth

Warren County Judges

Neal Bronson 35

James Flannery 56

Robert Peeler 24

James Heath 3 *

Judge Heath died in 2009 and was replaced by Peeler

Eligibility for Judicial Release

Original Sentence Can Apply

Under two years After 30 days

Two to five years After six months

Five years After four years

Six to ten years After five years

Ten years or more Ineligible

An area teacher who had sex with five male students could soon be released from prison early on a judicial release that is rarely used by area judges.

An examination by the Hamilton JournalNews/Middletown Journal shows early release of prisoners is a little used practice by area judges, but some say it should be applied more frequently.

Warren County Judge Robert Peeler will decide soon if former Mason teacher Stacy Schuler should get out of prison. He sentenced her to four years, but said she could be released after serving only six months. Her attorneys applied for her release, but the decision is pending a psychological opinion.

In the past three years, judges in Warren and Butler counties have only granted 214 early releases for prisoners. Of the 2,307 prisoners released from Butler County in the past three years, 96 or four percent were freed early. Warren County judges freed 118 or 14 percent of the 817 prisoners who left the system between 2009 and 2011.

Ohio Department of Corrections statistics show that judges statewide released 17 percent of the exiting prisoners early.

Not every prisoner is eligible for early release. Anyone sentenced to 10 years or more in prison can not apply. The top types of cases where judges released people early involved drugs and money. In the two counties, judges let 67 people out early who committed crimes like burglary and robbery and 65 defendants in drug and alcohol cases.

Butler County Judge Keith Spaeth, who also runs the felony drug court, said he uses judicial release so he retains control and can “hopefully get people clean once and for all.”

When people are freed from prison early they are subject to whatever post conviction treatment, counseling and testing the judge deems necessary. If he were to keep people with drug habits behind bars for the full term, once they are released he says there is no hope for recovery.

“You can’t just keep cycling people in and out of prison where they get no counseling,” he said. “You dump them out of the front steps of the prison and then they come back to this community, without any job skills, without any sobriety skills and expect that they’re not going to re-offend.”

Likewise, Spaeth said with the crimes involving money, he can make them pay the victims restitution if they are out on early release. The state parole authority has no such power he said.

Warren County Judge James Flannery has released the most prisoners (56) early in the past threes. He said the inmates he releases are generally low level offenders — under new sentencing laws most of these types of people can’t be sent to prison anymore — who just need that jolt to put them back on track.

“My attitude is if you’re going to keep somebody in prison for more than year you’d better just keep them there because you’re warehousing them. If they haven’t changed their behavior within a year, they’re not likely to change,” he said. “But if they can change it’s going to be within that first year. I look at it as a shock kind of thing, it gets their attention it makes them understand.”

He said the early release option works especially well with felony drunk driving defendants. He said a year in prison gets them sober and programs after help keep them that way.

Fifty prisoners were released who committed violent crimes, according to court records. One example is former NBA player Kirk Snyder who was sentenced to prison for three years in May 2010 by Warren County Judge Neal Bronson. He was found guilty of aggravated burglary and felonious assault for attacking his neighbors in their home in the middle of the night.

Bronson let him out of prison six months after he was sentenced. Bronson said Snyder could have avoided prison altogether but he insisted on going to trial. Snyder had severe mental problems and tried an insanity defense. Like most of his cases, he said agreements about judicial release are usually reached prior to sentencing.

“It’s always with the caveat, if you don’t follow the rules in prison…,” he said. “We get a summary from the institution which reports whether they were in isolation or had rules infractions filed against them. Generally my philosophy is if you can’t follow the rules in prison you’re not going to follow my rules.”

On the flip side, Butler County Judge Craig Hedric, who rarely grants early release, said if an inmate is a model prisoner, that might be a reason for his or her release. Health issues with the inmate or a family member are also valid reasons, he said.

“The vast majority of time, the sentence that I want the defendant to do is what I give them in court,” he said. “If I want them to do 18 months, I don’t give them 24 months and let them out at 18. I give them exactly what I want to give them.”

The majority of Butler County judges aren’t big fans of early release. Judge Noah Powers and Spaeth had the highest number of released prisoners at 39 and 28 respectively. The other judges have only given a handful over the past three years.

Judge Michael Sage, who only released five people, said only under extreme circumstances will he free an inmate early.

Before he sentences someone to prison he said he first seeks alternative solutions. He said “shock probation” such as Flannery described has proven not to work. He said sentencing is a tricky issue for judges and he is grateful they now have the Ohio Risk Assessment program.

The tool tests defendants at many stages of the judicial and imprisonment process to gauge their levels of risk and needs. Getting it wrong and putting someone in an improper environment can have devastating results..

“You have to decide where everybody fits. For example if you put a low needs, low risk person in a high needs, high risk program you actually increase their risk of recidivism, you don’t reduce it,” he said. “The same thing is true if you put a high needs, high risk offender, into a low risk, low needs program, they’re never going to make it because they are not getting adequate help.”

Judicial release isn’t always the best answer for everyone. The numbers show that of the 214 released inmates, 69 violated whatever rules the judges put them under and some were sent back to prison. Spaeth and Flannery said the 32 percent recidivism rate is a good number. They said a 50 percent rate is considered good for people on community control.

“It means two-thirds of those people are not re-offending, two-thirds of those people are doing whatever the judge ordered as conditions of their release,” Spaeth said. “I’d say that’s great.”

Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell has opposed Schuler’s early release. He said he opposes most requests for judicial release, but there are some instances when he can understand a release is appropriate.He said he is a firm believer in truth in sentencing.

“I think the public would have greater faith in our criminal justice system if when they hear someone is going to get sentenced to four years that that person is going to serve four years,” he said. “Otherwise it’s just a big number that everyone in the process knows is not going to happen.”

Peeler could not comment on the Schuler case, but said he generally favors judicial release.

“My philosophy is there should be some form of rehabilitation in the prisons,” he said. “The experts, who have done the study at UC are telling us that locking people in a cell just is not working. We have to examine other alternatives. There are times when the only thing you can do is lock someone in a cell to protect society. But non-violent crimes, the only thing prison seems to be doing is increasing violent crime.”