Ohio classifies felony offenses into five levels or degrees. First-degree felonies are the most serious offenses, while fifth-degree felonies are the least. Additionally, Ohio has a number of felony offenses that are not identified by degree, such as murder. Less serious crimes (misdemeanors) are punished less harshly, usually by jail time or fines.
This article will discuss how felony penalties and sentencing works in Ohio
Like many states, Ohio classifies felony offenses by severity with penalties that increase as the level of harm increases. But, instead of assigning a sentence for each felony degree, Ohio's law indicates a range of authorized sentences that apply, but only if a different mandatory sentence doesn't override it (and many do).
For first- and second-degree felonies, the court chooses a sentence term from those authorized. This number represents the minimum sentence. The judge then calculates the maximum term using a formula (described below). For all other felonies, the offender will receive a maximum sentence only, not a range.
Below are examples of penalties and offenses for each felony degree, plus those subject to life sentences.
A person convicted of any of the following offenses faces life in prison: murder, certain sex offenses involving victims younger than 13, felony involuntary manslaughter, felonious assault, and kidnapping with sexual motivation. A life sentence is mandatory for aggravated murder when the death penalty is not imposed.
The law sets the standard penalties for first-degree felonies at 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,10, or 11 years in prison, along with fines up to $20,000. However, many first-degree felonies carry much higher mandatory minimum penalties. Some of which include possible life sentences.
Depending on the sentences available, the judge first sets the minimum sentence. The maximum will be calculated by adding 50% to the minimum sentence. For example, say the judge sets the minimum term at 10 years. After adding 50 percent of that term, or 5 years, the judge sets a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, arriving at an indefinite sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison.
Similar to first-degree, a person convicted of a second-degree felony faces a wide range of possible sentences. The law authorizes sentences of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 years, plus a fine up to $15,000—but mandatory penalties often override this standard term. Like first-degree, a person convicted of a second-degree felony will receive a minimum and maximum sentence, where the maximum adds 50% to the minimum. Examples of second-degree felonies include aggravated theft, felonious assault, and home invasion (burglary).
Most third-degree felonies are punishable by a fine up to $10,000 and a definite prison term of 9, 12, 18, 24, or 36 months. However, a longer prison term of 12, 18, 24, 30, 42, 48, 54, or 60 months applies to aggravated vehicular homicides and assaults, sexual battery, gross sexual imposition, sex with a minor, and certain robbery, burglary, and drug offenses. Other examples of third-degree felonies include drug tampering, terroristic threats, and hazing.
Fourth-degree felonies in Ohio are punishable by a definite prison term between 6 and 18 months and a fine up to $5,000. Vehicle theft, promoting prostitution, and disrupting public services are examples of fourth-degree felonies.
Fifth-degree felonies can be punished by a definite prison term between 6 and 12 months and a fine up to $2,500. Breaking and entering, aggravated riot, identity fraud, and forgery are examples of fifth-degree felonies.
Ohio imposes mandatory prison terms for a number of felonies, including aggravated murder, murder, assault on police officers, assault on a pregnant woman, repeat violent offenders, certain sex offenses, major drug offenses, felony domestic violence, brandishing a firearm, and many others. The mandatory sentence overrides the standard authorized sentences described above.
When sentencing an offender, in addition to the prison term, the judge may order a period of "post-release control" (PRC). PRC refers to post-prison supervision, which starts after the offender finishes their sentence. It's required for all first- and second-degree felonies and violent or sexual offenses and optional for other felonies. Time spent on PRC ranges from one to five years, depending on the offense.
Not all felony convictions lead to prison. The other main option is called community control, which is similar to probation.
Ohio's sentencing laws follow a fairly rigid process to determine if an offender will serve their sentence in prison or on community control. Depending on the convicted offense, the law imposes one of the following dispositions:
Community control is similar to what other states call probation. The judge places the defendant under supervision (community control) with a reserved prison sentence. Defendants placed under community control must abide by conditions, which can include short jail stays, placement in detention or residential facilities, house arrest, electronic monitoring, drug or behavioral treatment, community service, and restitution, among other conditions.
Defendants who successfully complete the conditions may spend little or no time in prison for the sentence. But, upon a violation, the judge can modify the community control terms or impose the reserved sentence and send the defendant to prison.
Offenders sent to prison will serve most, if not all, of their sentence behind bars. Some early release options are available, but generally, the maximum amount of time a person can shave off their sentence will be 20%. (More on release provisions below.)
Offenders sent to prison will generally serve 80% or more of their sentence, plus several years on PRC (if applicable).
The rules on release vary depending on whether an offender is sentenced to a minimum and maximum term (most first- and second-degree felonies) or a set term (all other felonies). A different parole board system applies to life sentences.
The judge will order a life sentence with or without the option of parole. Those who are eligible for parole must usually serve 10 to 30 years of their sentence before they can request parole. A parole board makes release decisions for lifers.
For those sentenced to a first- or second-degree felony, they are serving what's called an indefinite sentence term. Most inmates will serve most, if not all, of the minimum sentence. Inmates can earn a 5 to 15% reduction off the minimum term for exceptional behavior. So someone serving a 10- to 15-year prison could be released as early as year 8 or 9.
Unless the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) objects, the inmate must be released after serving the minimum term (minus any credits earned). If the DRC objects to release, it can hold the inmate beyond the minimum term and up to the maximum term. The DRC may object if it finds release is not warranted due to the offender's conduct in prison or the offender represents a threat to public safety.
Inmates serving a set or definite term will generally serve 80 to 92% of their sentence terms. An inmate can earn reductions in several ways, including earning credits for participation in prison programming, receiving a DRC recommendation for exceptional behavior (called 80% release), or petitioning the court for early judicial release. At the time of sentencing, the court may also recommend that the DRC allow early release (called a risk-reduction sentence).
So, for instance, an offender serving a 60-month sentence for a third-degree felony could earn credits that would allow release as early as 45 months. Unlike indefinite sentence terms, the DRC can't object to release for those serving definite sentences.
Offenders required to serve a period of PRC must abide by the PRC conditions or risk going back to prison. An offender faces 9 months' incarceration for each violation, up to a total of half their original minimum sentence.
A felony charge is nothing to take lightly. If you suspect you are being investigated for a felony in Ohio, or have already been charged, consult an experienced local defense attorney as soon as possible.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2929.13, .14, .143, .144, .18, .20; 2935.36; 2941.149; 2951.041; 2967.19, .193, .271, .28 (2021).)