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Bail reform to ease crowding in detention facilities gains steady support

Special to the Legal News

Published: March 13, 2017

While immigration and trade in the age of Trump take center stage in the news cycle these days, bail reform is the cri de coeur in Ohio courts and legislatures as more organizations come out in favor of revamping a state system that disproportionately impacts the poor.

Both the County Commissioners Association of Ohio and the Buckeye State Sheriffs' Association recently called for changes that would prevent nonviolent offenders accused of misdemeanor crimes from crowding detention facilities in the state.

The recognition of the need for reform has also extended to the highest level of the state judiciary.

At a time when bipartisan cooperation - let alone cooperation across branches of government - is at a fairly low point, bail reform seems to be an issue that garners support across the board, statewide and nationally.

Last year, the country's two national state court leadership associations formed a National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices to address the ongoing impact that court fines and bail practices have on communities, especially the economically disadvantaged.

The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators are leading the effort and the task force is comprised of national judicial and legal leaders, advocates and policy makers and is co-chaired by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

The task force is working with the support and commitment of the State Justice Institute and coordinating with the Department of Justice after a White House hearing last year, led by the justice department, that outlined the severity of the issue and the need to find solutions.

According to a recent report from the Pretrial Justice Institute, evidence shows that current pretrial practices using money bail are needlessly expensive and do not produce positive results.

"Taxpayers spend approximately $38 million per day to jail people who are awaiting trial (63 percent of the total jail population, or more than 450,000 individuals on any given day)," the report states. "Annually, this $14 billion is used to detain people who are mostly low risk, including many whose charges will ultimately be dropped.

"By adopting commonsense policies that detain only higher risk people, that money could pay for a bevy of other needed services."

Recently, in its 2017-2018 Legislative Platform, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio advocated for moving to a risk-based system to establish bail for defendants, rather than the bond-schedule structure on which the Ohio justice system currently operates.

"The ability to pay a bail bond is impossible for too many of the people expected to pay it and, as a result, our county jails house many pre-trial individuals who present no reasonable risk to the public safety but remain incarcerated simply because they don't have the money required to gain their release," the association wrote.

The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission also has bail and pretrial services on its agenda.

Last year, the Ad Hoc Committee on Bail and Pretrial Services was formed in order to assess the current state of bail in the state and examine a risk-based approach.

"This could potentially revamp the way people are ushered through the justice system," Sara Andrews, executive director of the Sentencing Commission told The Daily Reporter last year.

Andrews says that the committee is now close to finalizing its findings will release its report and recommendations to the Sentencing Commission next week before it seeks public comment.

Whether or not the recommendations are eventually adopted, Ohio joins dozens of states considering or implementing bail reform.

And with politicians, judiciaries and law enforcement joining the call for change, the question is not if but when bail practices will begin to change in Ohio and across the nation.

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