The Worst Crime of it All: Being Black
While the title may appear provocative, it is essential to avoid false equivalences since not all criminal situations are comparable. In this particular case, two women, one black and one white were convicted of the same crime. However, the two instances are not identical. One is far worse than the other.
Debbie Bosworth, the former village clerk of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, pled no guilty to 22 charges of theft in office, tampering with documents, and money laundering after auditors determined she had embezzled more than $238,000 over a 20-year period. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office rejected Bosworth's plea and requested a judge to send her to jail, despite the fact that she submitted a $100,000 check to repay a portion of her debt after her scam was uncovered. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Hollie Gallagher sentenced Bosworth to two years of probation. Gallagher stated that Bosworth did not deserve to go to prison since she made good on her promise to return over $300,000 prior to her sentence hearing.
Both Bosworth and Judge Hollie Gallagher are both white. And let’s be clear, we already know the chances of a white woman punishing another white woman are low. Even the prosecutor of Cuyahoga County, Michael O'Malley, released a statement stating that he respectfully disagreed with the judge’s punishment as it “just encourag[ed] public employees to steal.”
Karla Hopkins, a secretary and executive assistant at Maple Heights High School was indicted in May 2020 on a single count of third-degree larceny in office for retaining $42,000 of more than $71,000 in annual dues and fees.
According to her counsel, she began stealing the money while battling with mental health concerns and gambling addiction. The Plain Dealer stated that she was fired, but by the time of her sentence hearing, she had finished an in-patient treatment program, obtained new employment, and paid $5,000 in restitution.
The prosecutor requested a jail term of nine to twelve months. But Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Rick Bell imposed an 18-month jail term on Ms. Hopkins.
A Need for Change
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Black people convicted of crimes earned 20% longer sentences than similarly situated white people guilty of the same acts. According to the Sentencing Project, black citizens of Ohio are incarcerated at six times the rate of their white counterparts. And it would also be pertinent to note that Cuyahoga County has the largest Black population percentage in Ohio, with a majority white population of criminal court judges. According to a 1999 study by the Commission on Racial Fairness, Black Ohioans are sentenced to jail at rates dramatically disproportionate to those of white Ohioans. The report, commissioned by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, concluded that the majority of existing literature acknowledged that minorities were sentenced to jail more frequently and get worse sentences on average than whites.
So let’s recap: Bosworth, a white woman, committed more crimes over a longer period, stole six times more money and was charged with 22 counts of theft, and faced a maximum of 60 years in prison. She received probation. Hopkins was charged with one crime and was sentenced to 18 months in jail, which really does nothing for the public good. She was not a threat to anyone and incarceration would not help her deal with her mental health concerns.
There have been attempts made in Ohio to correct the obvious disparities. The Ohio Sentencing Commission launched the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform, which would collect data from the state’s criminal courts. In theory, the judges could use the database to see the averages for similar cases. Yet, most of them refuse to even sign up for the program as they believe that judicial discretion is more important than equal treatment under the law.
Bosworth received empathy and compassion. Hopkins received neither. This is not an individual instance of corruption in the system. It's just how it's designed. In Ohio, and quite frankly in any other state, the lesson is clear, make sure you are white.