The social and financial costs of overincarceration are a source of social friction that could be reduced somewhat with legislation now pending in the Ohio General Assembly.
A couple of bills in the House and Senate would require the state’s judges to consider releasing a pretrial inmate on nonmonetary conditions, rather than by imposing a financial bail. The judges would be required to use a validated “public safety assessment” tool to determine if the defendant is likely to show up for court dates, and the likelihood a defendant will commit a crime while out of jail.
Lucas County is pioneering one of the models for determining who gets released and who has to post bail or go to jail.
The tool created by Lucas County, with money provided by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, has nine questions relating to defendants’ criminal record, employment status, community ties, and other factors to assess the public-safety threat posed by an inmate who is awaiting trial. The county has used this tool since January, 2015, to reduce the cost of jail services, but also to allow inmates to stay in the community if they qualify.
The concept is that it gives judges objective scoring to decide whether to release a defendant. And it makes the defendant’s conduct the decider in staying out of jail, rather than the family’s financial resources.
State Sen. Robert McColley (R., Napoleon) has introduced legislation in the Senate that mirrors a bill already in the House. The bill would require the state’s courts to use the tool in deciding whether to impose conditions instead of setting monetary bail.
Lucas County’s experience has been positive, in the view of judges. However, so far, the use of the tool has not stopped the rising cost of jail services in Lucas County, from $27.7 million in 2015 to an anticipated $34.2 million in 2018.
The legislature is on the right track in setting objective assessments that will give judges in the state the assurance to release inmates on nonrecognizance bail.
The bill is facing a concerted opposition from the bail bond industry and victim advocates. They fear that victims will hesitate to bring charges if they know their assailant will likely be immediately set free, and that criminals will lose their fear of being arrested if they think the system prefers to release them with no bail and no jail.
The legislature must act to enforce the law, and would-be criminals must fear their punishment. However, if the balance can be achieved without requiring monetary payment and with public safety protected, then the goal of reducing the number of people behind bars would be a worthy one.
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