Summer is in full swing. Are you worried about sharks as you order your ice cream cone? Shark attacks increase alongside ice cream sales, but one does not cause the other. The real variable is summertime weather, which drives us to beaches and ice cream stands.
Recognition that this is correlation — not causation — is likely why lifeguards aren’t smacking sweet treats out of beachgoers’ hands.
What does this have to do with our criminal legal system?
Some stakeholders reliant on the status quo are using correlation arguments to stand in the way of bail reform. Often, when true reform is on the table, naysayers suggest a problem is a direct result of reform even with no evidence of causation and when other variables are likely responsible.
Another common tactic is to claim “the sky will fall” and point to a single incident as proof of a widespread problem. This is precisely what is happening with bail reform and crime in our communities. Like ice cream sales and shark attacks, it is easy to be misled and scared, but we cannot succumb to manufactured fear standing in the way of pretrial fairness.
The Ohio General Assembly introduced bail reform legislation in May 2021, and later added public safety-minded amendments.
Cash bail creates a two-tiered system of justice in which wealthy individuals (regardless of threat to public safety) go home while people without money languish in jail (even if they pose no threat).
HB 315 goes a long way to ending this wealth-based detention.
Not only will it ensure initial release decisions hinge on whether someone poses a threat instead of the depth of their pockets, it also maintains judicial discretion by providing judges and prosecutors opportunities to step in.
(Currently, judges typically set large bond amounts to detain people they deem to be dangerous, but this leads to the release of individuals on account of their access to money. This practice was struck down by a January 2022 Supreme Court of Ohio decision).
Ohio’s bail naysayers claim this legislation will harm public safety. Luckily, we don’t have to hedge our bets on their speculation; we have facts about how this bill enhances public safety.
Spoiler: bail reform efforts have caused little-to-no increase in crime, while allowing thousands of legally innocent people to return to their families, communities, and work.
New Jersey passed pretrial reforms in 2017. After implementing its pretrial reform, the state’s jail population fell approximately 47%, and crime went down across all categories, especially violent crime, which fell in the years following pretrial reform.
During the pandemic, across the country and in Ohio, judges, sheriffs, and other stakeholders cooperated to quickly decrease jail populations due to concerns about COVID spread due to overcrowding. In many jurisdictions, judges eliminated bond amounts that needlessly held low-income individuals in jail.
The result? There was no change in crime trends. In fact, most cities reported fewer crimes during this period of unprecedented release.
Some states received pushback on their bail reform efforts, but Ohio learned from missteps elsewhere.
HB 315 is a model for centering public safety in the quest to end wealth-based detention. It has broad support across the political spectrum, faith groups, law enforcement groups, directly-impacted people, businesses, and many others.
Change, just like sharks, can be scary, but let’s consider the evidence.
The policy solutions in this legislation will go a long way to fix Ohio’s broken pretrial system, because the one we have in place — which allows wealthy, dangerous people to buy their release — does not keep us safe.
Instead, it keeps our neighbors without enough money locked up and unravels their lives one day at a time.
Bail reform is needed to bring us a step closer to Ohio being a place of liberty and justice for all, not just the wealthy. We need to do what’s right and focus on facts, not fearmongering.
Let’s have that ice cream without worrying about the sharks.
Patrick Higgins serves as policy counsel for the ACLU of Ohio. Patrick primarily works on issues related to the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice which is a multiyear effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population and combat racial disparities in the criminal legal system.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.
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