Disparate Sentences in Ohio Court Raise Questions of Racial Injustice


Last week in Cleveland, Karla Hopkins, a Black woman, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing $40,000 from Maple Heights High School, while Debbie Bosworth, a white woman who stole nearly $250,000 from the village of Chagrin Falls, was sentenced to probation. The disparity in the sentences two women received for embezzling public money has damaged the credibility of the legal system and renewed calls for reforms to address racially disparate sentencing, The Plain Dealer reports.

Debbie Bosworth

Debbie Bosworth stole more than $248,000 over 20 years while working as a clerk in the Chagrin Falls village utilities and building departments. She took cash from residents’ utility payments and moved money from one department to the other to cover it up.

When she was found out in 2019, she resigned and hired a prominent defense attorney. She pleaded no contest to 22 counts of theft in office, tampering with records, and money laundering, and was found guilty.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Ed Brydle asked the judge to sentence Ms. Bosworth to prison. “We feel that is the only appropriate sentence for a public official who steals a quarter of a million dollars, regardless of whether she’s paid it back or not,” he said. She faced a maximum sentence of three years.

But after Ms. Bosworth wrote a check for $100,000 and agreed to forfeit more than $200,000 in her public employee pension, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Hollie Gallagher sentenced her to probation, saying she didn’t deserve to go to prison because she had repaid what she stole.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley told The Plain Dealer that he “respectfully disagreed” with the judge’s decision. “There has to be punishment beyond restitution or you’re just encouraging public employees to steal,” he said.

Karla Hopkins

Karla Hopkins, a secretary and executive assistant at Maple Heights High School, was indicted in May 2020 on a single count of third-degree theft in office after she kept $42,000 out of more than $71,000 in dues and fees collected for the year.

She began taking the money while dealing with mental health issues and a gambling addition, her attorney said. She was fired, but by the time of her sentencing hearing, she had completed an in-patient treatment program, found a new job, and paid $5,000 in restitution, The Plain Dealer reported.

The prosecutor asked for a prison sentence between nine and 12 months. But Judge Rick Bell sentenced Ms. Hopkins to 18 months in prison.

Calls for Change

In Ohio, Black residents are imprisoned at six times the rate of white residents, according to the Sentencing Project. And nationwide, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that Black men receive sentences on average 19% longer than similarly situated white men.

In Cleveland, leaders of Black faith organizations, labor organizations, current and former judges, and social justice groups said the disparate sentences undermined the community’s faith in the legal system and underscored the need for statewide sentencing reform.

“I think it reinforces the lack of trust in the justice system,” Danielle Sydnor, president of the Cleveland Branch of the NAACP, told The Plain Dealer. “These types of things are the way the system was designed, and they will continue to happen if we don’t have large-scale reform.”

Specifically, the cases have renewed calls for Cuyahoga County judges to join a public statewide sentencing database constructed by the Ohio Supreme Court.

The database project stems from a 1999 report from the Commission on Racial Fairness, which found that Ohio judges sentenced Black people to prison and to death at a “grossly disproportionate rate” compared to white defendants. The commission called for sentencing data to be collected and reported to determine the reasons for the disparity.

In 2020, current Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor led an effort to create the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform to collect and analyze sentencing data from all 88 county criminal courts statewide.

So far, only 10 of the 34 judges on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court have said they will participate in the program.