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Ohio’s cash bail rules create imbalance in equity and justice




‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is one the central tenets of this country’s legal and criminal justice systems, but this isn’t the reality for everyone. Two-thirds of the jail population, and a quarter of the incarcerated population, in the U.S. are pretrial detainees, or people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. The high number of these pretrial detainees is the direct result of a cash bail system that ensures poorer people spend more time in jail.

I’m a retired assistant chief from the Miamisburg Police Department and in my 26 years in law enforcement, I saw a constant stream of people arrested for low-level drug offenses and other minor crimes being held in our county jail. Critical resources were dedicated to holding these people who didn’t pose a threat to their communities, an issue that is problematic for our sheriff departments throughout the state.

The negative impacts of the cash bail system are evident across the country, and Ohio is no exception. Everyday in Ohio, up to 12,000 people who are innocent in the eyes of the law are detained because they can’t afford to pay their cash bail. For many of these people, being locked away will mean further impoverishment as they miss work, and many will lose their jobs. If they need mental health services or addiction treatment, they do not receive adequate care in many jails while they are detained.

In addition, it goes without saying that jail time for people awaiting trial has negative impacts on their family members. The children of incarcerated people face a number of challenges — not only because of the absence of a caretaker, but also because of the stress and trauma of having a parent incarcerated. These kids are much more likely to become imprisoned themselves, creating a destructive cycle that ripples out across our communities.

Under our current bail system, the length of pretrial detention correlates to an increased likelihood of recidivism and failure to appear — the longer someone awaits trial, the more likely they are to repeat crime upon release and the less likely they are to appear for trial.

Reforming this system is not only possible, it’s increasingly likely to happen sooner rather than later. We have the tools to build a more just system that upholds public safety and empowers law enforcement to strategically focus their time and resources. SB 182 and HB 315 are a pair of bipartisan, companion bills that would reform the current bail system in two critical ways.

The first is that this legislation would require that a pretrial release decision be made no more than 48 hours after arrest, dramatically reducing the number of people being held in jail waiting for the court to decide their pretrial fate.

SB 182 and HB 315 would also establish a system that allows the court to focus on whether or not the accused person poses a public safety threat.

The case of Darrell Brooks and the recent tragedy in Wisconsin illustrates how delicate of a balance this is. People of more means and who pose a greater threat to the community are able to take advantage of the cash bail system. Mr. Brooks’ bail was set at an “inappropriately low” level given the gravity of the charges he was facing, and an internal review is already underway. It is an outlier and by no means the norm.

In the proposed changes to our bail system, if evidence shows that a person might flee or reoffend, the court can decide to hold them. If the court finds evidence that a person does need to be held but that a financial bond is necessary, this second part of the reform would allow judges to consider a person’s ability to pay. This is a balanced solution for what has been recently recognized as a major civil rights issue.

Releasing people accused of low-level crimes promotes public safety and prevents collateral damage to families. Jail time for a parent quickly results in job loss, which can destabilize a household and hurt children and other financial dependents. Bail reform would allow people charged with low-level, low-risk offenses to return to work and family, showing courts that they are getting their lives back on track.

Money saved from abandoning the cash bail system can be significant. In Washington, D.C., similar reforms resulted in an annual savings of nearly $400 million. A 2020 report by the ACLU of Ohio estimates Ohio could save $199 to $264 million each year through bail reform. After reforming its bail system, New Jersey reported that defendants were just as likely to show up to court and no more likely to reoffend.

I’m confident in the ability of our legislature to reform the bail system in a way that respects accountability, the work of law enforcement officers, and does better by the people experiencing the criminal justice system.

SB 182 and HB 315 are a step forward for Ohio — these bills do not prevent the courts and law enforcement from detaining people who are a threat to public safety. Nor does this legislation allow people to escape accountability for their actions. This legislation enables our police to dedicate their time and resources to protecting Ohioans and our communities and it allows the courts to ensure that justice is fair and equitable for all.

Miamisburg Police Department Assistant Chief Tom Thompson (Ret.) was promoted to Assistant Chief of Police in 2012. He is the founder and Executive Director of Valens Solutions and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials who speak from firsthand experience to improve the criminal justice system. 

This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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