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Sealed criminal-case rate higher in some OH towns

CINCINNATI (AP) — Judges in some small Ohio college towns seal a larger proportion of criminal records from the public than courts in some larger metro areas where a college represents a smaller segment of the community, a newspaper reported Monday.

The finding was from The Cincinnati Enquirer's analysis of court records in several Ohio college towns.

The newspaper compared the number of sealed misdemeanor cases in some individual courts in 2012 with the number of misdemeanor cases completed last year. Many cases likely include charges such as underage drinking or disorderly conduct, although it is impossible to tell what crimes are involved in sealed cases, the newspaper reported. Misdemeanors also can include theft and domestic violence.

The newspaper reported last month that Judge Robert Lyons of Area I Court in southwest Ohio's Oxford, home to Miami University, sealed 2,945 misdemeanor cases in the past five years. Lyons has said he routinely seals cases for Miami students, noting some young people with "indiscretions" want their records sealed before they start applying for graduate school or go to the job market, according to the newspaper.

Lyons told The Associated Press on Monday that the law in Ohio provides for the sealing of records "not just for college students, but for anyone who is eligible under the law to apply."

" I would take offense at any suggestion that college students would be treated any differently than non-college students or anyone else," Lyons said, noting that a large portion of the young people in college towns are likely to be college students.

He also said thorough checks are made to ensure that anyone applying to have records sealed is eligible.

A University of Cincinnati law professor, Christo Lassiter, questions whether students in towns dominated by a college get preferential treatment or just know how to work the legal system.

One is six misdemeanor cases in Bowling Green Municipal Court in northwest Ohio is sealed and a third of the cases are kept secret in municipal court in southeast Ohio's Athens County — the home of Ohio University, according to the analysis. The newspaper reports that in northeast Ohio's Portage County — home to Kent State University — 22 percent of the misdemeanor cases in the Kent division of the county's municipal court were sealed last year.

Larger metro area courts, by comparison, seal a much smaller proportion of misdemeanor cases, according to the Enquirer.

Data showed that Franklin County Municipal Court in Columbus sealed 9 percent of the cases completed in 2012.

"There may be some circumstances where the court might order a case to be sealed. But not because of the fact that a person just happens to be a student is it an automated process," said Obie Lucas, chief deputy clerk of Franklin County Municipal Court.

Doug Cubberley, administrator at Bowling Green Municipal Court, said most sealed cases are dismissals following completion of a diversion program for underage drinkers that allows first-time offenders to have charges dismissed if they complete requirements including alcohol education, community service and a fee. They also can have their case sealed.

"We've always said we want people to come to the university and leave town with a degree and not a record," Cubberley said.

Police in Oxford operate a program allowing first-time offenders to complete a similar program and get dismissal of alcohol-related city violations such as disorderly conduct and underage drinking.

Ohio University students charged with alcohol offenses in Athens can have cases dismissed if they complete a similar program. The Athens Municipal Court sealed 1,020 misdemeanor cases in 2012, most involving the diversion program, the newspaper reported.

Jack Grove, chairman of the Butler County Public Defender Commission and a former prosecutor, is not a fan of those types of practices that he says allow "kids to pay up money and have the case sidetracked."

"It's like pay to play," he said.

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