It’s time to change Ohio’s cash bail system, reformers say

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America’s justice system is underpinned by “innocent until proven guilty,” but thousands of Ohioans sit in jail before they’ve had their day in court — largely because they can’t come up with bail money, advocates for reform say.

Criminal justice reformers from the right and left say it’s time for Ohio to revamp the system to make it more fair.

A new poll of Ohio voters released Wednesday found: 75% believe criminal justice reform is needed; 69% support releasing most people the same day they were arrested if they don’t pose a flight risk or threat to anyone else; and 67% think bail conditions should be based on individual circumstances, not on how much money someone has.

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The poll, conducted in December by The Tarrance Group, was sponsored by a coalition that includes the ACLU of Ohio, Buckeye Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Ohio Justice & Policy Center and The Bail Project.

“These results affirm what we’ve been hearing for years: Ohioans want bail reform. Cash bail doesn’t promote public safety; it just allows wealthy people to buy their freedom. Enacting commonsense bail reform policies will make Ohio a more equitable place and could also save our state up to $264 million per year,” said Claire Chevrier, policy counsel for the ACLU of Ohio, in a written statement.

Louis Tobin of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said Ohio changed its criminal rules last year to require courts to release defendants on the least restrictive conditions that will still reasonably assure they’ll show up for court.

“We don’t even know yet whether the changes to the rule can be implemented safely, we’re in the midst of a huge rise in violent crime, and the same advocates are calling for something even more extreme,” Tobin said. “What they want is playing with fire in terms of public safety.”

Bail has two purposes: make sure the accused show up for court and protect the public from harm.

Defendants deemed to be too risky can be held in jail without bail. Those considered little or no risk may be released without conditions. Those in between may be required to make bail — money paid up front.

In Ohio nearly six of every 10 jail inmates are awaiting trial — rendering them unavailable for work, family obligations or school.

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Multiple reports show Ohio could save taxpayer money and prompt more defendants to show up for court dates. The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission studied the issue in 2017; the conservative Buckeye Institute reported in 2018 that Ohio could save $67 million a year through bail reforms; and an Ohio Supreme Court task force issued a report in 2019 that called for an overhaul.

Bondsmen, however, have opposed legislation that would push Ohio courts away from using the current cash bail system in favor of assessing the risk each defendant poses.