Shocker! Ohio Black Woman Receives Harsher Sentence Than White Lady For Same Crime
Former Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Village Clerk Debbie Bosworth pleaded no contest in June to an assortment of felonies, including theft, tampering with records, and money laundering. She'd embezzled almost $250,000 from the village over 20 years. She was only caught after she was promoted and her replacement reviewed the utilities department's financial transactions. Not every promotion is a positive move for your career.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Hollie Gallagher sentenced Bosworth on August 2 to two years probation. The prosecutors had asked for jail time on account of all the embezzlement, but Gallagher believed Bosworth didn't deserve to go to prison because she'd tried to pay back some of the money. That seems very generous, but maybe Gallagher is a forgiving soul.
The next day, former school secretary Karla Hopkins was sentenced to 18 months in prison, six more than the prosecutor had requested. Hopkins had pleaded guilty to stealing more than $40,000 from Maple Heights High School. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Rick Bell was not as forgiving as Hollie Gallagher. Perhaps that's just the difference between Ricks and Hollies, but the big difference in these two cases is that Debbie Bosworth is white and Karla Hopkins is Black. And Hopkins is the only one who'll see the inside of a prison.
Hopkins told Bell that she emptied her pension — she didn't know how much was in it but said, after taxes, she received about $20,000 — to pay her bills after the school fired her. Her attorney, Bret Jordan, said that she began stealing the money while dealing with mental health issues and her gambling addiction but has since gotten treatment and gone through a job placement program. In the meantime, she came up with $5,000 to pay toward her restitution.
Hey, Hopkins tried to pay back the money she'd stolen just like Bosworth! Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor James Gutierrez told Bell the state would be fine with a sentence between nine and 12 months, but Bell insisted Hopkins had “compounded her theft." because she'd liquidated her employee pension shortly after her theft was discovered. That somehow warranted almost doubling the recommended sentence.
Let's recap: Bosworth, who is white, committed more crimes over a longer period. She stole six times more money than Hopkins, who is Black. She was charged with 22 counts of theft and faced a maximum of 60 years in prison. Hopkins was charged with just one count but was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which will serve no public good. She's not a danger to anyone and prison won't help her deal with any mental health issues she might have.
Bosworth received compassion. Hopkins received none. This is not a corruption of the system. It's just how it's designed.
Attempts have been made to correct for such obvious disparities. Last year, the Ohio Sentencing Commission launched the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform, which would collect data from the state's criminal courts. The judges could use the database to see the average sentences for similar cases. At least they could if they felt like it, and most don't. Many judges have refused to even sign up for the program. They believe “judicial discretion" is apparently more important than equal treatment under the law.
Cuyahoga County has the largest population of Black people (28 percent) in Ohio, but Bosworth and Hopkins still faced white judges. That turned out great for Bosworth but less so for Hopkins.
Nationwide, Black people convicted of crimes received 20 percent longer sentences than similarly situated whites who commit the same offenses, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In Ohio, the state's Black residents are imprisoned at 6 times the rate of Ohio's white residents, according to the Sentencing Project. In 1999, a report from the Commission on Racial Fairness found that Black Ohioans are sentenced to prison at grossly disproportionate rates compared to their white counterparts. The study, requested by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, determined that "the consensus of the available research acknowledges that minorities are more frequently sentenced to prison and generally receive harsher penalties than do whites."
The lesson here is clear: If you commit a crime in Ohio or any other US state, make sure your judge is named Hollie and you're white. Just kidding, just make sure you're white, that's the important part.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."