Ohio's current cash bail system is the essence of wealth-based detention, and it does nothing to promote public safety. But it does harm families, communities, and the fabric of Ohio.

This piece originally appeared on the Ohio Capital Journal on March 10, 2022.

For years Ohioans have watched states from Kentucky to New Jersey to Colorado and many in between pass legislation to modernize their bail systems. While public conversation and stakeholder interest has been high, Ohio hasn’t crossed the finish line. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, and it’s time to remember what bail reform would actually do for all Ohioans.

On any given day, as many as 12,000 people, or about 60% in Ohio jails, have not been sentenced. These legally innocent people largely remain behind bars simply because they cannot afford their cash bail. This is the essence of wealth-based detention, and it does nothing to promote public safety. But it does harm families, communities, and the fabric of Ohio. 

Long wait times in jail create long-term, devastating consequences even for individuals later found innocent. Our criminal legal system shouldn’t be set up to punish and create instability for any of us, but certainly not for people who are legally innocent and awaiting sentencing. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how our pretrial system currently operates. Fortunately, Senate Bill 182 and House Bill 315, bipartisan, companion bail reform legislation, is making its way through the Ohio Statehouse.

Senators McColley and Steve Huffman, along with Representatives David Leland and Brett Hillyer and 46 cosponsors are leading this effort. This legislation rightly focuses on key provisions to ensure people don’t languish in jail simply because they can’t afford their cash bail while upholding and prioritizing public safety.

The bills accomplish this by creating a release path so most people can go home within 24 hours unless the judge or prosecutor is concerned that someone might miss a court date or if they raise considerable public safety concerns. In that case, a detention or conditions of release hearing could be set within 48-72 hours depending on the charge. These hearings would include access to counsel, and if cash bail is set, the defendant’s ability to pay must be considered.

These common-sense policy solutions will greatly benefit Ohio communities and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under the proposed legislation, Ohio would be a healthier place. The size of one’s wallet should not determine their freedom, especially when we know policies that enforce the vicious cycle of criminalization of poverty harms us all. Each day in jail jeopardizes an individual’s employment, housing, home life, and community connections.

Policy Matter Ohio’s 2021 report, Bail reform will make Ohioan’s healthier, notes that “one clear impact of pretrial incarceration is an increase in mental stressors, such as the threat of job loss, separation from family, and the trauma of incarceration. These and other environmental and personal factors can degrade the mental health of individuals who are incarcerated while they await trial.” 

This report also highlights the negative effects on the children of those who are incarcerated. The stress of not knowing when or if their parents will come back home can even cause greater stress compared to longer post-conviction sentences.

Research in Ohio also mirrors what we see nationwide. People held pretrial are more likely to be convicted than those charged with the same crime but released shortly after arrest, and they are more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison, and for longer terms. 

Furthermore, there is a big misconception about who is in our jails and why. A 2020 ACLU of Ohio study of four counties revealed that 63% of people held pretrial were accused of a misdemeanor or a non-person felony. Most of these people should be at home with their families rather than in a jail cell. The cash bail system unfairly punishes people who don’t have money, simply because they don’t have money. 

Ohio’s overreliance on cash bail costs our communities in ways we cannot quantify. Bail reform will undoubtedly help families and communities maintain stability. That’s why over 70 organizations and individuals support these efforts across Ohio. It’s not just social justice advocates – people from faith to academia, and even law enforcement, have all taken a seat at the table. 

True bail reform, like that of Senate Bill 182 and House Bill 315, promotes public safety, ends wealth-based detention, and allows more people to be at home with their families before their trial date strengthening the fabric of Ohio. The evidence is clear, bail reform is a win-win, and the time for bail reform is now.