Bail Reform in Ohio - The Time is Now to Make your Voice Heard

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The Cuyahoga County Jail, pictured in 2016. A bill to reform bail practices statewide is still languishing in an Ohio House committee. (Lynn Ischay, The Plain Dealer, File, 2016)

This Opinion piece written by Bradley J. Schlang, Community Relations Committee Chair, was originally published in the Plain Dealer on August 31, 2018:

Each year, Ohioans are sent to jail for months, sometimes years, before their cases are resolved. These individuals frequently live in squalid living conditions and under a constant threat of violence - while presumed innocent - simply because they cannot afford to pay a bail bondsman.

This is wrong on many levels.

It's wrong for those incarcerated before they get due process, and for their families. Many lose their jobs while forced to await trial behind bars, causing their lives go off track simply because of this antiquated bail system. And it's wrong for the taxpayers of Ohio, who must carry the significant financial burden associated with our antiquated bail system.

This is why, earlier this year, I traveled to Columbus as part of an interfaith coalition of Cleveland-based community organizations to urge elected officials in Columbus to fix the bail system at the state and local level.

Sadly, this problem is not unique to Ohio. In its 2015 report, "The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Criminalization of Poverty," the Institute for Policy Studies found nearly half a million people are held in local jails across the country because of their inability to pay -- the overwhelming majority for nonviolent, low-level offenses involving drugs and/or property theft. The think tank estimates that incarcerated individuals awaiting trial costs taxpayers in the United States $13.6 billion each year!

Consider this: It costs far more to keep a person in jail than it does to provide them with pretrial services.

As detailed in a 2015 report by the Pretrial Justice Institute and National Center for State Courts, it cost Cuyahoga County $42 million to jail pretrial defendants in 2013.

A report by the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute found U.S. taxpayers spend $38 million a day jailing some 450,000 defendants who can not afford bail.

Conversely, according to the 2018 Cuyahoga County Bail Task Force Report, Summit County saved $7.3 million in 2016 through an investment of $783,000 in pretrial services that reduced the average length of stay for felony pretrial defendants from 60 days to 21 days.

At the heart of the problem is that bail is too often based on a predetermined bail schedule rather than on an assessment of risk or threat to public safety.

A bill currently in the Ohio House's Criminal Justice Committee - House Bill 439 - seeks to improve the bail system statewide. Laudably, it calls on judges to utilize objective risk-based assessment tools to evaluate a defendant's risk of failing to appear in court or committing a crime once released. Use of these tools requires extensive pretrial supervision and services across the state. It also includes a call for statewide data collection that will evaluate the effects and outcomes of the newly implemented reforms.

Efforts for bail reform in Cuyahoga County are ongoing thanks to the leadership of Cuyahoga County Administrative and Presiding Judge John J. Russo and recently retired Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald B. Adrine, and a number of other community members and clergy. Our coalition is heartened by the progress our leaders in Cuyahoga County are making on bail reform.

However, we know these local efforts face an uphill battle without support from the Statehouse.

HB 439 is a start, but is not good enough as written. In Columbus, our coalition advocated for real leadership at the state level to improve the bill and make a real difference in the approach to bail statewide. Specifically we called for the bill to include provisions to fund data gathering (that includes disaggregated demographic information and could be funded through cost savings from implementation), allow for multiple risk assessment tools that give judges the discretion they need, and mandate prompt bail hearings before a judge along with funding consistent and comprehensive pretrial services.

All of us are committed to seeing the passage of genuine statewide bail reform. Together with Andrew D. Genszler, president and CEO of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry; Cecil Lipscomb, executive director, United Black Fund; Juan Molina Crespo, executive director, Hispanic Allianc Inc.; Jill Rizika, executive director, Towards Employment; James Hardiman, president, NAACP Cleveland; and Anita Gray, regional director, Anti-Defamation League Cleveland, we are committed to effecting change on this critical issue.

If you or someone you know has been affected by an inability to afford bail, or if you want to get involved in this effort, we want to hear from you.

Join us and make your voice heard: Call our team at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland at (216) 593-2834 or email Dklein@jcfcleve.org.

Bradley J. Schlang is chair of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland's Community Relations Committee.

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