By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A change in the way the state parole board considers how soon an inmate gets a parole hearing has prosecutors and victims' rights advocates crying foul, while some defense lawyers and prisoners rights groups are applauding.
In December, the Ohio Supreme Court decided that instead of considering the original charge when calculating how soon an inmate should receive a parole hearing, the parole board now must focus on the offense that put the inmate in prison.
Legal experts say this is significant because in many cases, inmates accept plea bargains and are convicted of lesser charges, despite being accused of more serious crimes.
It affects more than 18,000 inmates in Ohio's prison system, and about 2,100 are eligible for a parole hearing right away.
"It makes perfect sense," says David Singleton, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Prisoner Rights Advocacy Center. "There is a fundamental premise in our criminal justice system that the time you serve is based on the offenses for which you are convicted. Before this decision, the Adult Parole Authority was taking into consideration offenses that inmates were charged with but not convicted on. That runs counter to fundamental fairness in the criminal justice system."
But to victims, prosecutors and victims' rights advocates, what's unfair is that some of the most violent offenders with some of the most-lengthy prison terms could be out on the streets sooner than anticipated.
"We're very concerned about what that may do to the victims and to the community," says Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel. "We are also concerned about the way it's being administered because we're getting very little notice" about coming parole hearings.
Hutzel says she learned about Avedis Ralph Seaward June 12, the day before his appearance before the parole board.
Seaward, 53, was accused in the 1981 rape and kidnapping of a 23-year-old store clerk in Franklin. However, he was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery.
In prison since 1982, he was sentenced to 14-50 years. Seaward's most recent bid for release 18 months ago was rejected, with his next hearing scheduled for 2011.
His June 13 appearance was a surprise.
"One of the big issues is whether the prosecutors and victims are going to get to give their sides of the story," says Hutzel, adding that someone from her office, along with Seaward's victim, had to scramble to make it to Columbus.
A prosecutor's office usually knows about parole hearings well in advance.
"But these are all being scheduled outside of our normal (list) of parole hearings," Hutzel says.
Seaward's victim, now 45 and living in the Greater Cincinnati area, says she's terrified that he'll be released.
"Nobody knows about this decision and there are so many victims out there that are not going to know their offenders are out of prison until it's too late," she says. "How many more victims are there going to be because they're letting out these rapists and murderers?"
In Clermont County, Assistant Prosecutor Woody Breyer is sifting through documents in the old case file of Thomas Kagrise, who in 1996 was convicted of felonious assault and gross sexual imposition.
Kagrise, 53, had initially been accused of repeatedly raping a child relative, but because of the trauma the victim suffered, prosecutors felt it would be easier to reduce the rape charge since he'd already been convicted of the felonious assault charge.
Kagrise was sentenced to 8-15 years in prison.
His parole hearing will take place today.
"On the surface it seems as though this is the right way to do this, but this is a serious offender and what he did was horrible," Breyer says.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen says this ruling could make a prosecutor think twice about a plea agreement.
"When you have a homicide case and you're dealing with a victim's family, you want to be able to accurately represent to them when a person would be eligible to be released. ... It may very well result in fewer plea bargains on cases like this," Allen says.
But Hal Arenstein, president of the Greater Cincinnati Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says that, too, wouldn't be fair.
"I've been in many jurisdictions where they would simply (inflate the charges) against people and hope that maybe they could prove something and when they couldn't you'd wind up pleading to low-level felonies or misdemeanors because they've taken advantage of the grand jury system," he says. "That's not to say that that happens here, but what kind of society punishes people for what they might have done?"
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