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Republicans, Democrats say Ohio’s current cash bail system traps people behind bars

Anna Staver The Columbus Dispatch

Sixty percent of people sitting in Ohio jails have never been convicted of a crime. 

They’re there because they can’t afford to make bail, Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, said. “What happens to those people?”

A bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers says those folks can sit in jail for days, weeks or even months while they wait on a trial. They lose jobs. They lose homes. They lose custody of their children. 

Sometimes they plead guilty to a lesser crime – even if they believe themselves to be innocent – just to get out, Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, said.

That’s why McColley, Leland and 48 other state lawmakers have signed onto two companion bills in the Ohio House and Senate that would overhaul how courts use cash bail across the state. 

The bills, which don’t have numbers yet, would require courts to start from a presumption that most people deserve to be released while awaiting trial. This would not apply to violent crimes or cases where prosecutors believe someone to be a danger to the community.

Then, within 48 hours of arrest, Leland said, there has to be a hearing on conditions of release.”

A means test for cash bail

Courts have a multitude of options and only one of them is cash bail, he said. The others include mandatory drug testing, electronic monitoring, prohibiting contact with victims or potential witnesses, holding weekly phone calls and handing over passports. 

If courts wanted to use bail, then both Leland and McColley’s bills would require a means test.

Basically, the court would total up a person’s income and subtract their expenses (rent, utilities, car payments, childcare, etc). Bail could be no more than 25% of whatever that equation spits out. It wouldn’t matter whether the person earned $15,000 or $150,000. It’s always 25% of their income minus expenses. 

Leland said courts couldn’t have bail schedules where one crime requires $1,000 bail while another offense is $2,500.

Bail, McColley said, would be based on individual resources.

Bipartisan support for reform

The idea has support from groups like The Bail Project, a nonprofit that pays bail for people across the country. But it also has support from conservative groups like the Buckeye Institute and the Ohio chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

And it has the support of Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

“Incarcerating nonviolent offenders pretrial is a needless waste of taxpayer money,” O’Connor said Tuesday. “(Bail) was not meant to be a mechanism to keep people in jail pretrial.”

McColley introduced a similar bill during the last General Assembly. He said it failed for two reasons: There wasn’t enough time to debate it, and some data validation tools the bill required made courts nervous. 

“This bill has none of that in it,” he said. 

Instead, it directs courts to increase their contact with those awaiting trial. Leland compared it to the way your dentist or hairdresser sends out reminder texts and emails about upcoming appointments. 

“This is not a complete elimination of cash bail,” McColley said.

Read the original article here.

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