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Bill in Ohio House seeks to give judges more say in bail decisions

Efforts to reform Ohio’s bail laws appear to be gathering steam in Columbus as groups on both sides of the aisle call for changes.

Roughly 57 percent of inmates in Ohio jails are not there serving a sentence but instead awaiting trial, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction data.

Ohio courts should look at risk factors, not bank accounts, when deciding who goes free on bail and who stays locked up, according to advocates for bail reform.

Lawmakers introduced a bill in the Ohio House Thursday to change how bail is set. The Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank based in Columbus, is also expected to release a report next week detailing why it believes change is needed.

Ohio uses a money-bail system to ensure that those accused of crimes show up for court hearings and trial. Bail schedules vary across the state, but they usually don’t take into account an individual’s circumstances such as the ability to pay, whether the person is a risk to the community or likely to skip out.

Related: Rich buy freedom, poor stay in jail, report on Ohio bail system says

“Under Ohio’s current bail system, pretrial release is determined by the amount of money a person has access to rather than the actual threat the person poses to the community,” said Daniel Dew, legal fellow with the Buckeye Institute, in a written statement. “Ohio’s cash bail system leads to absurd results where a drunken jaywalker spends time in jail while a child rapist is released on bond only to murder the child set to testify against him.”

Flexibility sought

House Bill 439, backed by Republicans Jonathan Dever of Cincinnati and Tim Ginter of Salem, calls for moving away from a cash-bail system and giving judges more flexibility and information on which to determine bail decisions. It would require the use of risk assessment tools — which take into account factors such as criminal history and age — in misdemeanor cases.

“It’s going to be a different way of doing business at the courthouse,” Dever said. “Decisions should be made based on evidence and not the size of your pocketbook.”

The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission would produce a list of valid tools that could be used by courts, according to the bill. And courts would be required to collect data on defendants free on bail and whether they commit other crimes or fail to appear for court and information on how their bail was set.

Related: Why are so many Ohioans in prison? State trying to find out

The bail bonds industry, which puts up money for bail in exchange for a 10-percent fee, opposes reform efforts. Woody Fox Sr., vice president of the Ohio Bail Agents Association, said using an alogrithm to calculate who gets out of jail in the middle of the night is not a good process.

“Bail assures justice. If someone is accused of a crime, there is a victim. If they can’t get people back to court, where is the justice for that victim?” Fox asked.

He added: “We don’t have a problem with bail reform as long as it’s done right.”

The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission recommended in a March 2017 report that Ohio courts use risk assessment tools, collect data to ensure a fair, effective system, use other methods to prompt defendants to show up for court and require legal counsel to appear with defendants at the initial court appearance.

‘Lopsided’ bail systems

Justice Action Network, a national criminal justice reform organization, praised HB 439, saying Ohio needs a bail system more focused on public safety and less on the wealth of the accused.

“From New Jersey to Kentucky to Utah, states across the country are working to fix their lopsided bail systems, which often allow violent offenders to buy their way to freedom, while less wealthy people accused of petty crimes sti behind bars for months because they can’t make cash bail,” said Holly Harris, director of the group.

Related: Man stopped for wearing hoodie, baggy pants is jailed for nine days

In Dayton last May, Markcus D. Brown was stopped by Dayton police at the RTA bus hub ecause he and his friends were wearing hoodies and saggy pants — a violation of RTA policy. He spent nine days in jail and was released only after his mother arranged for a car title loan to pay the $150 bail.

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