PDT Staff Writer
Scioto County Commond Pleas Court Judge Howard H. Harcha, III, was recently elected President of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, the organization that represents that branch of the judicial system.
Harcha said there are 288 Common Pleas judges in the state of Ohio. Harcha said there are separate Domestic Relations, and Probate-Juvenile divisions. There is also the Municipal Judges Association and a Court of Appeals association.
“We basically handle the civil and criminal aspect of trials,” Harcha said.
Harcha first went on the board as a trustee and was nominated to go through the various chairs.
“I’ve been doing this about six or seven years,” Harcha said. “You work your way up and it’s a lot of fun. You sort of get in on the early stages of new laws and new procedures, and you work with other judges, and you work with the Supreme Court and the Legislature. It’s pretty interesting.”
Harcha said one of the hardest parts of the job is planning events.
“I’ve got to plan a winter conference, which I have already done,” Harcha said. “And I’m in the process of planning a summer conference we’re going to have in Cincinnati for all the judges. So that takes up a lot of time.”
Harcha says it is an honor to be president of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association.
“I’m just fortunate to have that opportunity,” Harcha said.
He said he is also involved with the Judicial Conference.
“Judicial Conference is created statutorily, sort of like the governing body for judges,” Harcha said. “It’s a resource for all judges, and we have a staff up in Columbus, and they handle our legislative matters. They have committees and throughout the year these committees are working on areas that need change or to handle change. I have been on that executive committee for a while. I’m chairman of the Community Corrections Committee. I’m co-chair with Judge (James) DeWeese out of Mansfield.”
Harcha said, several years ago there was a push in Ohio to keep non-violent offenders out of prison, and to keep those people in the community and work with them.
“These are programs where we can keep people here, with jail sentence possibly, and change their behavior, their patterns or habits, and hopefully reduce recidivism, and the likelihood of recommitting,” Harcha said. “So through that, I worked with the Legislature, with changes that are in the works now.”
He said one of the big areas is Truth in Sentencing, which rose up during the 1990s.
“The argument at the time was the judge had sentenced someone on an indefinite sentence of five to 25 years,” Harcha said. “Well, the Parole Board, in about three years, would look at them and decide whether to let them out and a lot of times, let them out. And people were saying, ‘they had this sentence, why are they out on the street committing new crimes,’ so judges would say - ‘it’s the Parole Board letting them out.’ The Parole Board would turn around and say, ‘wait a minute, you know when you give that sentence, we’re going to look at it after about 60 percent of the time has been served,’ and so we went to what was called definite sentencing, and back in the 90s, if a judge said - ‘one year or 10 years,’ then that’s what it was going to be unless the judge let them out. And it has worked good. It has been a good system.”
Harcha said the problem with the system is that the judge would give a year sentence or a two-year sentence and an inmate going into the system knew how much time they had to serve.
“And with this new legislation, there was something called ‘bad time,’ and if you messed up in prison, they could add time to your sentence,” Harcha said. ‘Well, that was real unconstitutional. So now we’re faced with a situation where these inmates who know when that end date is, there is no incentive to behave in prison. So they are fighting among themselves. They are fighting with guards. They’re doing things, and recently the Department of Corrections said we’ve got an issue with violence in our prisons - we’ve got to correct it, so one of the proposals now is to have a judge advise a defendant at the time of sentencing - ‘here’s your sentence, but, in addition, if you violate the rules, time can be added, and it’s going to be added administratively.”
He said there would be regional boards to review the cases and add sentences where appropriate. He said the situation does not effect judges because they still have the current sentences, and nothing has changed there so it is an add-on to that.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor administered the oath of office to Judge Harcha and the other judges elected to leadership positions. Nearing the completion of his 22nd year on the bench in Portsmouth, Harcha served one six-year term in Portsmouth Municipal Court. Currently serving his third term on the common pleas bench, he was elected in 1996 and has been re-elected twice.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at email@example.com.