Politics Delay Reform in Ohio

A bill with major bipartisan backing that supporters call a significant step forward for criminal justice in Ohio remains stuck in the Statehouse political machinery, seven months after passing the Senate.

More than three weeks ago, a House committee voted 8-2 to send Senate Bill 77 to the full chamber. But the GOP-backed measure has sat idle waiting for Democratic House leaders to schedule a full vote.

“Hopefully, there are no games being played and they’ll put a good, bipartisan bill on the floor and get it out,” said Sen. David Goodman, R-New Albany, sponsor of the bill to expand DNA testing and set new standards for witness lineups.

“There is absolutely no reason for it not to go to the floor. This is a great opportunity for the House to show strong bipartisanship and support for good public policy. I’m not running for anything. No one has to worry whether I get any” credit.

No groups are opposing the bill, at least publicly, and it passed the Senate 32-1 in June. But since the start of 2009, broad support has not regularly translated into a smooth road to passage in the Statehouse.

Politically divided for the first time in 14 years, the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate have moved few bills into law during the past 13 months.

The chambers have sat on each other’s bills, or instead passed their own versions of legislation, gumming up the process or forcing the two to engage in horse-trading before final passage. Goodman’s bill is among those caught in the gears.

Speaker Armond Budish, D-Beachwood, has not said definitively when, or if, the Senate bill would get a vote.

“It hasn’t been discussed yet in caucus,” he said. “We’ve had other things we’ve been working on. In the normal course, it will come up for discussion, and we’ll see.”

Later, Budish spokesman Keary McCarthy said the bill is important, but also suggested that although Goodman’s bill has already been amended and passed by the Senate and a House committee, a similar bill by Rep. W. Carlton Weddington, D-Columbus, could move forward instead.

“We would like to see one of these measures passed out of the House in the coming weeks,” McCarthy said.

The delay has frustrated supporters, including Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project.

“All parties, including prosecutors, police, Democrats and Republicans, worked for years to create a consensus bill. It’s a shame it’s being delayed at this point,” Godsey said, noting that the bill would help prevent convictions of innocent people.

The bill has four major components: requiring DNA samples from anyone charged with a felony; opening DNA testing to parolees; requiring law-enforcement agencies to retain biological evidence for up to 30 years in murder and sexual-assault cases; and requiring “blind” lineups for suspects, in which the officer either does not know the identity of the true suspect or which suspect photo the witness is viewing.

Senate President Bill M. Harris, R-Ashland, said the bill will be among those discussed by a “working group” that he and Budish soon will develop to try to break the logjam on bills stuck in both chambers.

“Without good communication about what is holding it up, usually I’m saying we need this bill passed, and the speaker is saying we need that bill passed,” Harris said. “We need to have some discussion, and that is what the work group will do.”

Gov. Ted Strickland has publicly supported the bill several times.

The bill’s limbo status is unpopular with the men who have been wrongfully convicted in Ohio. Robert McClendon, who was freed in 2008 after serving 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, said he and others who have been exonerated have been frustrated that it has taken lawmakers nearly two years to bring the bill to this point.

“This should be about justice, not politics, and those in power should remember that,” McClendon said. “Your life is taken from you when you are locked up for things you didn’t do. This bill will help prevent that from happening to others.”

Delay Reform in Ohio

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