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Report Urges Franklin County To Change Bail Practices

Ohio State

A study commissioned by Franklin County officials finds racial disparities in the bail system and recommends ideas to reduce reliance on cash bond.

The report, released earlier in the month, reviewed cases from the first half of 2018. It found black suspects were more likely than white suspects to spend time in jail after being booked, and more likely to face monetary bond for pre-trial release.

Franklin County Justice Policy director Michael Daniels says one recommendation would do away with a rotation of more than a dozen judges, instead putting bail decisions in the hands of a dedicated group of magistrates.

The result, Daniels says, would be "a consistency of application of bail, as well as an ability for those folks to become expert in the best practices specifically regarding bail and pretrial screening and pretrial supervision."

"If you have someone who only does a job once every 14 weeks, you can’t really expect them to be expert at it," Daniels continues.

The study found nearly 70 percent of the county jail’s average daily population is made up of defendants waiting for a court date—at a cost of almost $25 million a year. Researchers suggest some of those inmates could be safely released, and they specifically highlight defendants accused of non-violent felonies.

Daniels emphasizes bail is meant to ensure defendants don’t harm the community and appear for their court date.

In terms of avoiding harm, the study says judges need more information on hand when they’re reviewing cases. It also urges risk-screening happen sooner in the process.

Daniels says screening that relies on criminal history is quick and easy, but it can reinforce racial disparities. Instead, he wants to find ways for corrections officials to conduct brief interviews with suspects before they see a judge to uncover any mitigating circumstances.

When it comes to failing to appear, the study encourages the court continue its efforts to remind people about their hearing date. The county already uses robocalls or text messages, but Daniels notes most people aren’t missing court because they forgot. 

He says the public defender’s office is working to establish lines of communication not just to remind about the time, but to plan for potential mishaps.

“Not only, 'Hey John, don’t forget that your court date is next Thursday,' but, 'Be sure you call your boss, be sure you’ve got your child care set up, and if you have a snag, call me back,'” Daniels explains.

He says having an explanation for a judge is better than simply missing the date.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.