Bail reform in Ohio needs high court’s imprimatur

Cleveland Plain Dealer: The seven justices of the Ohio Supreme Court have yet to act on nine powerful bail-reform recommendations from a high-level task force the high court established earlier this year.

They should do so soon.

Without the high court’s imprimatur, important reforms needed to end unjust bail practices throughout Ohio that keep poor defendants in jail unnecessarily – reforms both in Ohio judicial rules and in state law – will languish.

As just one example, the current two-year Ohio budget that passed earlier this year included no money to help some parts of Ohio, including smaller, rural counties, pay for improved pretrial services and risk-assessment tools. The tools help gauge whether a criminal suspect can be safely released from jail using supervised release as an alternative to onerous and unmerited cash bail. Validated risk-assessment tools help measure the risk of letting a suspect go free pending trial.

Task force report

As the 30-member task force found in its report last month to the Ohio Supreme Court, “Roughly 57 percent of inmates in Ohio jails are not there serving a sentence, but instead are awaiting trial .... They are locked up because they cannot afford bail.“

That’s wrong.

The task force, headed by Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Mary Katherine Huffman, also found that the upfront costs of more pretrial services could be offset by other savings.

“Research shows that jail in Ohio is far more expensive than supervised release,” the task force, which also included Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Administrative Judge John J. Russo and Rocky River Municipal Judge Brian Hagan, found. “The average jail bed [costs] almost $65 per day, compared to $5 per day for maximum supervised release.”

Simple justice also demands bail reform, as highlighted by’s “Justice For All” series.

Too many in Ohio without the means to pay hundreds of dollars cash bail face unwarranted stays in jail before the charges against them are even adjudicated – jail time that can cost them jobs and their futures.

That blows back, too, in terms of increased recidivism and harm to their children, the task force found.

“Studies have shown that as few as three days in jail can make those who are detained more likely to offend in the future – likely because detention disrupts stabilizing factors such as employment, housing, health, and education,” the task force found. “More than one in 10 Ohio children – over a quarter million kids – has experienced the absence of a parent due to incarceration in jail or prison.”

Unnecessary incarceration also costs taxpayers in jail crowding that ripples out into other negative impacts on jail safety – as has happened in Cuyahoga County.

Many of the task force’s recommendations can be implemented by the Ohio Supreme Court itself via new rules; one such recommendation would require unified bond schedules for counties such as Cuyahoga with more than one court system.

But the key recommendation – requiring the use of validated risk- assessment tools before setting bond – will take legislation. A bipartisan effort to pass such a bill in the last General Assembly faltered under the onslaught of lobbying from the bail-bond industry. House Bill 439 never got out of committee and died at the end of last year with the end of the 132nd General Assembly. Similar legislation has not been reintroduced.

To succeed, such legislation needs the high court’s imprimatur to pass.

Additional costs

In its fiscal analysis of HB 439, the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission acknowledged that the additional court costs “related to data collection, setting bail using a validated risk assessment tool, and additional hearing requirements” likely would be “substantial” and “include the need to hire additional staff.”

But it also pointed to taxpayer savings from not having to pay for needlessly incarcerated suspects. In 2016, according to the LSC, the statewide annual cost of all county jail incarceration was $266 million.

A 2017 study of the Cuyahoga County jail found that more than one-quarter of those held on a relatively low bond – in which cash bail would typically be $500 or less – never posted bond at all. That’s wrong – and it underscores how important bail reform is.

The Supreme Court should quickly embrace the task force’s nine recommendations and start the process of statewide bail reform.