The Montgomery County Jail.

Cash bail unfair and unproductive, local reform advocates say

Opponent says change would mean hundreds will receive “a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Detaining people in jail for low-level, non-violent charges because they cannot pay bond raises constitutional questions and unintended consequences, local and state proponents of bail reform say.

“There are numerous people who have ended up taking a plea to get, basically, out of jail or people who … just sit on misdemeanor charges that are non-violent … because they have a $2,500 cash bond that they can’t come close to making,” Montgomery County Public Defender Theresa Haire said.

Haire said jail stays for poor non-violent offenders are counterproductive to society.

“I don’t think that some judges fully comprehend the devastating effect on a person’s life by even four or five days in jail,” she said. “Because once they miss work and they’re fired … they can’t make the next rent check.”

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor advocates reducing cash bail in favor of a risk assessment based on an individual’s criminal history, age and other factors. She leads a national courts group focused on fines, fees and bail reform. On Wednesday, she is expected to hear recommendations from a task force focused on reforming Ohio’s bail system.

O’Connor recently said monetary issues shouldn’t dictate the judicial decisions of poorer inmates who lose their income: “This kind of pressure can lead them to make plea deals they shouldn’t be making if they are not guilty of the crime they are charged with.”

Opponents of bail reform include the Ohio Professional Bail Association and people representing the Ohio Association of Security & Investigative Services and the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association.

While testifying to the Ohio legislature in 2018, Charles E. Miller, the president of Batavia’s Charles J. Miller Bonding, said suggested bail reform “will mean that hundreds of criminals in Ohio will be receiving a get-out-of-jail-free card because of an unproven, risk assessment tool.”

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Steven Dankof doesn’t hold high hopes for any task force, but said O’Connor’s efforts may have a “salutary effect in that they have forced Ohio judges to come face to face with the reality that business as usual probably isn’t going to cut it.”

Three former Montgomery County Jail inmates who died and who are the subjects of ongoing lawsuits were not incarcerated for violent crimes.

Robert Richardson, who died in 2012 after a medical episode and was handcuffed face down, was in jail for not paying child support.

Robert Linkous was booked on two old non-violent warrants after his wife called 911 because Linkous was ill while trying to quit drugs. Linkous died in 2015 shortly after being taken from jail to the hospital.

Sasha Garvin died in 2017 due to a bowel obstruction. Sheriff’s office personnel initially thought she died of a drug overdose. Garvin was in jail serving a short sentence for a probation revocation.

Another inmate, Randy L. Staley Jr., killed himself in 2017. He was incarcerated for a misdemeanor assault, but his bond was set at $25,000, and court dockets indicate he had mental health issues.

“We routinely ask for the bonds to be lowered, and it depends on your judge,” Haire said. “There are some judges in Montgomery County who are working very hard to try and, if not reform the bail system generally, they are very cognizant of the issues. And then there are some that just, you know, that’s not something that they are extremely sympathetic to.”

Dankof said the Montgomery County Jail population has dropped from around 900 to 700-plus lately, coinciding with a jail overcrowding lawsuit being filed in Dayton’s U.S. District Court.

“I think there has been a recognition on the part of the courts that the utilization of a cash bail schedule has constitutional implications, and that it’s probably counterproductive,” Dankof said. “It’s warehousing people who are not a flight risk, who are not a threat to the community and really don’t need to be in that jail at taxpayer expense.”

Dankof said bail reform isn’t a liberal or conservative cause because fewer people in jail lowers taxpayer cost and increases civil liberties.

The conservative-leaning Buckeye Institute reported in May 2018 that bail reform could save $67 million in jail costs.

Miller, who owns the Batavia bonding company, testified last year: “While some will argue that using a mathematical equation may remove bias, it also takes common sense and experience out of the equation.”

The Buckeye Institute’s Daniel J. Dew wrote in a 2018 report that since switching to an evidence-based, risk-assessment system, Lucas County has “seen more defendants released before trial, more defendants appearing for trial, and less crime committed by those awaiting trial.

“Crime committed by those on release, for instance, dropped from 20 percent to 10 percent. Those skipping their court date dropped by 12 percent, even as the number of people released without money bail doubled.”

Dankof said his position has evolved on incarcerating people who have overdosed.

“There is no provision to put somebody in jail and hold them because they’re a risk to themselves,” the judge said. “The judges are faced with a lot of anxiety about whether people will be critical of their bail and bond decisions.”

Dankof echoes O’Connor’s sentiment that pretrial detainees — about two-thirds of jails’ populations — shouldn’t just get what they get.

“This attitude that — which we’ve had for too long, it’s sort of subliminal, I don’t think we come to it intentionally — oh well, you know, they must have done something wrong or they wouldn’t be in the jail,” Dankof said. “Well, wait a minute. That ain’t right.

“Judges shouldn’t be thermometers who merely take the temperature of whoever’s in the room at the time or whoever’s speaking to them, or the voters or whatever. Judges should be thermostats for change that is necessary.”