Hamilton County Commission: Hunter Incarceration 'A Grave Injustice'

The three Democrats on the county's governing body say Hunter is not a threat to society and should not be jailed for her felony conviction.

Jul 23, 2019 at 4:52 pm
click to enlarge Tracie Hunter - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Tracie Hunter

The three members of the Hamilton County Commission today railed against the jailing of former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter. 

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Patrick Dinkelacker yesterday executed Hunter's six-month jail sentence on a fourth-degree felony conviction, leading to a dramatic scene in the courtroom. A deputy dragged Hunter away by her arms after she went limp. Her supporters yelled and chanted in the court gallery. One woman was arrested after crossing a barrier between the gallery and the courtroom. Hunter has since claimed that she was injured during her arrest, according to Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil. 

Meanwhile, Democratic elected officials have decried her incarceration. 

"A grave injustice occurred Monday in the Hamilton County Courthouse as the sentence imposed upon former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter leaves many questioning fairness of the local justice system," reads a statement signed by Commission President Denise Driehaus, Vice President Stephanie Summerow Dumas and commission member Todd Portune, all Democrats.

"Incarcerating Judge Hunter makes no sense given the nature of the offense involved," the statement continues. "Since her conviction by the court in 2014, Judge Hunter has caused no harm to society, has done extensive work benefiting local communities through her church and personal volunteer work, and worked tirelessly to care for her aging mother. Dragging her into a cell in the Hamilton County Justice Center when she is neither dangerous nor violent is unjust and serves as a further example of the need for criminal justice reform in our local courthouse."

Hunter, a Democrat, was in 2014 found guilty of a felony charge for using her position as judge to seek confidential documents in an attempt to keep her brother Steven Hunter from being fired from his job with the juvenile courts. Steven Hunter was accused of punching a minor inmate, though he claimed he acted in self-defense.

Eight other felony charges against Hunter related to backdating juvenile court documents, using a court credit card improperly and other charges were dismissed after a jury deadlocked on them. Shortly after the announcement of the verdict, three jurors said they wished to reverse their guilty votes, but a motion for a retrial by Hunter's attorneys was denied. 

After almost five years of appeals during which state and federal courts upheld Hunter's 2014 trial, federal judge Timothy Black in May ruled that Hunter's six-month sentence could move forward.

Hunter's case has always carried with it fraught politics. She won her seat in 2010 only after suing the Hamilton County Board of Elections, forcing it to count votes that had not previously been counted and upending an announced victory by her Republican opponent. The victory made Hunter the first African-American juvenile court judge and one of just a few Democrats in a Republican-dominated courthouse.

Hunter ruffled feathers in the court with her reform-minded approach to juvenile justice, which included unshackling young defendants and imposing sentences that sought to avoid juvenile incarceration. But her critics also charge she did not perform her job adequately, letting cases stack up and not following court procedures.

Some Republicans vocally opposed Hunter during her trial, including Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who issued a news release blaming Hunter for a homicide involving a juvenile she had tried and declined to incarcerate. 

A number of Democratic elected officials, meanwhile, have defended the former judge. Many weighed in yesterday asking that Hunter not be jailed, including Mayor John Cranley, state Rep. Cecil Thomas, Cincinnati City Council members Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and others. 

Some officials such as Thomas maintain Hunter is not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted. Others, including the mayor and the three commission members, do not take up the issue of guilt, but simply say Hunter's sentence is disproportionate to her conviction.

"At this point — taking into consideration what Judge Hunter has endured over the last five years — incarceration of someone who is both non-violent and not a threat to society is beyond the scope of what a system truly committed to justice would prescribe," the letter from commission members concludes. "Our community gains nothing from incarceration given the punishing effects that this matter has had on Judge Hunter’s personal and professional life over the last five years. We, as a community, should seek restorative justice rather than retribution."

Deters recently wrote a letter to Dinkelacker asking him to delay Hunter's sentence until a psychological evaluation could be performed on her. Hunter and her attorneys rejected that suggestion. Deters has since asked Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to commute Hunter's sentence. 

Hunter's supporters continue to protest her sentence. Roughly two dozen demonstrated outside Dinkelacker's Green Township home for two hours yesterday evening.