Ohio Legislature Considers Reform Of State’s Bail System

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A bill pending in the Ohio State Legislature would result in far fewer people sitting in jail because they cannot afford to post bail. 

Under the current bail system, a bond amount is set based on the crime. Those who can pay the bond can await their trial at home, while those who cannot stay in jail for weeks or more while their cases are pending. 

House Bill 315 would not eliminate cash bail altogether but would create a presumption of release that requires anyone who is arrested to be released within 24 hours if they do not pose a threat to anyone and are not at risk of skipping their scheduled court dates. 

For others, the bill would require a conditions of release hearing within 48 hours of the arrested person’s detention. In that hearing, the judge will determine if the person must remain in jail or set a cash bond.

If the judge decides on a bond, the maximum that can be set is 25 percent of the total amount after the accused’s total monthly expenses are deducted from their total monthly income. 

This new bill has gained significant bipartisan support, with the two main sponsors of the bill being Republican Rep. Brett Hillyer and Democratic Rep. David Leland. They believe this bill will end the “wealth loophole” that could compromise public safety.

“Cash bail does not make us safer. It allows wealthy people who may be dangerous to purchase their freedom and commit new crimes,” Hillyer and Leland said in their written testimony. “Under our legislation we expand the provisions of Ohio law that allow for preventative pretrial detention when people are arrested for serious crimes. That means we stop the ruse of setting a high bail amount for people who are dangerous and hoping that protects us.”

The ACLU of Ohio had been advocating for bail reform for years, dissatisfied with the current system that they claim deviates from the original purpose of bail.

“The original and only constitutionally permissible purpose of cash bail is for it to serve as an incentive to get people back to court. If somebody puts up a few thousand dollars, they’re going to come back to court to get that money back, ” said Claire Chevrier, a policy counsel on the ACLU of Ohio’s legal staff. “Unfortunately, that’s not how cash bail is played out across the country and in Ohio. Instead, cash bail serves as a barrier for people to get released if they are not able to post that money, so instead they just stay in jail unnecessarily.”

She also shed light on those who may not have the privilege to fight for their innocence with an expensive bail keeping them in jail for weeks to months before having their time in court, and having costly consequences such as losing their jobs and custody of children in the meantime until their eventual release if successful.

“The individual stuck in jail might be forced into taking a plea deal. If they plead guilty to a minor misdemeanor today, they can go home to their job tomorrow and tuck in their kids today,” she said. “Whereas the person who is released for the same crime might feel pretty good about their chances at trial, and they know that they’re not going to lose everything while waiting for that trial.”

Brian Stewart and Ron Ferguson, two state legislators representing districts in the southeast Ohio area, are co-sponsors of the bill, but not everyone is pleased with this new proposal.

 “[There is] just a self-reported lack of income that leaves some discrepancies that’s unverifiable,” said Hocking County Prosecutor Ryan Black. “A drug trafficker is not going to list their monthly income or any employment on their list, therefore capping their bond at a much lower amount than what they are capable of paying.”

The two main sponsors of the bill also expect the new legislation to save Ohio taxpayers $199 to $254 million due to eliminating the cost of holding people in jail unnecessarily. This estimated number also took into account the increased costs of additional pretrial supervision needs to reach this number. 

For opponents such as Black, they will believe it when they see it.

“These politicians estimate tens, sometimes they even speculate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings [on bail reform]. It’s just exactly that, it’s speculative,” he said. 

The bail reform bill is gaining traction in the Legislature, and is currently undergoing hearings before the House Criminal Justice Committee.