An Open Letter to Judges in Cuyahoga County

Ohio is bearing the weight of a crisis right now: not just the crisis of COVID-19, but the crisis of cash bail. Through a system that prizes money over justice many residents of Cuyahoga County are faced with a crippling alternative when they are detained: either pay an exorbitant release fee, or spend the rest of your pretrial time behind bars.

This has a destabilizing effect on poorer, and especially Black communities, who are already facing financial hardships in the current climate. Without having the money to pay for your presumption of innocence, pretrial detainment can result in loss of employment, loss of housing, and even parental custody of one’s children. Additionally, it can result in higher conviction rates, and ultimately harsher sentencing outcomes.

The longer you stay in jail pre-trial, the higher your rate of conviction. It isn’t only losing your job, or having less contact with a lawyer that can hurt your defense when you stand before court. It is also the likelihood of having to take a plea bargain in order to get out of jail in the first place. Ultimately, you are declaring yourself guilty without a defense. And ultimately, you become another number in the Ohio prison system.

Ohio is waking up to this. America at large is waking up to this. As we witness mass demonstrations against police violence our country is coming to terms with its long history of injustice. Money bail is an issue that, like police violence, disproportionately affects the Black community. It is legal condemnation in the form of wealth. With lives locked away our people essentially face no future, as incarceration can destroy one’s chances of finding housing or securing employment after their release.

Why should second chances be given based on who can pay? I would ask you if this is fundamentally in line with the principles-not the system-but the principles that a democratic society should be committed to.

I am calling on each judge in Cuyahoga County to be a better representative for ALL county residents, not just the ones who can afford to pay for their innocence. This means not relying on money as a way to ensure people’s attendance in court. Or forcing people, additionally, to pay for electronic monitoring once they have already met their bail costs. Bear in mind that these obligations have the worst impact on people who are not only disadvantaged, but not yet proven guilty in court.

This means promoting alternative methods of pretrial justice, such as cite and release, rather than detainment after arrest. It means using digital reminders rather than GPS trackers or monetary incentives to ensure that a person shows up for their court date. In places like New York and California, these “reminder” incentives have been shown to work. Not only are they cheaper for the defendant; they cost less overall for taxpayers. According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative pretrial detention costs $13.6 billion at the national level, per year. By contrast, an article by the Associated Press found that Upthrust, a software employed to send digital reminders, ranges from $10,000 to $20,000 in installation costs and $2 for each person requiring a reminder. Upthrust is currently used in states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and Washington.

I am imploring you to use your power as an administrative judge to stand with your Cuyahoga community: to uphold the rights you were elected to serve. I am calling on you to represent the needs of those most disadvantaged by the judicial system. I leave you with two quotes, one from Gandhi, the other biblical: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”