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Why Ohio Lawmakers Are Considering Ending Cash Bail

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Judges would assess defendants' likelihood of skipping out on court appearances based on a variety of factors instead of a strict system of cash bail, under measures being considered by Ohio lawmakers.

The current bail system rewards those with money, even if they pose a greater threat to society than other offenders who can't afford bail, House GOP Reps. Jonathan Dever and Tim Ginter testified earlier this year before the House Criminal Justice Committee. A similar bill is pending in the state Senate.

The lawmakers used the example of a 21-year-old man arrested at a Dayton bus hub on a misdemeanor trespassing charge last year. Though his bond was set at $150, the man sat in jail for nine days while his mother arranged for a loan to cover the amount.

Meanwhile, the cost to taxpayers was $510.21, said Dever, of suburban Cincinnati, and Ginter, of Columbiana County in eastern Ohio.

If a judge had assessed the man's background, "it is likely that the police department would have processed and released him, as he had no prior criminal history and was an unlikely danger to society," they said.

The bills are based on a report issued last year by the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, which concluded the bail system often harms efforts to protect society by worsening conditions for people held before trial.

"Research shows that even short stays in jail before trial lead to an increased likelihood of missing school, job loss, family issues, increased desperation, and thus, an increased likelihood to reoffend," the report said.

Instead of following a strict schedule for what crimes require certain bail amounts, judges would assess defendants' risk for committing new crimes and violent crime, and their risk of failing to appear, under the legislative proposals.

The bills are part of a national effort to rethink the use of bail, bond, court costs and fees, which critics say too often punish the poorest defendants with no evidence they're a flight risk.

In February, Philadelphia's top prosecutor said his office will stop jailing people who cannot afford to pay cash bail in minor criminal cases.

In the year since New Jersey overhauled its bail system, a state judiciary report showed the number of defendants being detained before trial dropped by 20 percent. The January 2017 changes all but eliminated cash bail. Critics of the changes say some defendants who were released were soon re-arrested on new charges.

In Ohio, bail bond companies have lined up to oppose the idea, saying it will put them out of business and shift the cost of finding defendants who leave town onto already strapped police departments.

"Right now, our bail system supports numerous functions of the court and law enforcement," Woody Fox, owner of Woody Fox Bail Bonds, told lawmakers in March. "Eliminating bail as we know it will force these entities to raise local taxes to fill the funding gap left as result of this legislation."

In January, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court urged judges to avoid imposing excessive fines, fees or bail simply to raise money.