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Ohio Nonprofit 'Disrupts' Bail System By Paying For Defendants Who Can't Afford Bond

Advocates of bail reform protest Cuyahoga County Jail conditions in January 2019.
Nick Castele
Advocates of bail reform protest Cuyahoga County Jail conditions in January 2019.

Columbus recently moved to stop requesting cash bonds for most people charged with non-violent crimes, instead letting them out of jail as they await trial. It’s the latest in a statewide effort to reform cash bail, which tends to keep poor people behind bars.

In Cleveland, officials have gotten some help in trying to bring down the population of the long-overcrowded Cuyahoga County Jail. The nonprofit Bail Project has a simple mission: post bonds for defendants who can’t afford them.

The project, which relies on donations and operates in more than a dozen court systems across the country, set up a two-person shop in Cleveland in July 2019. Since then, the project has paid the bail of 175 defendants, according to the group’s national spokesman.

Cash bail is meant to ensure that criminal defendants show back up for their court dates. Advocates of bail reform say the system keeps poor defendants in jail before their trials, while the wealthier go free.

A stay behind bars before trial—when a defendant is still legally innocent—can turn a person’s life upside down, says Kareem Henton of the Bail Project.

“You’re talking about folks that have lost, or have the potential of losing their homes, their apartments, things of that nature, losing their jobs, their children—perhaps custody of their children,” Henton said.

Henton and Anthony Body, two local “bail disruptors” from the Bail Project, work out of a small office in the Terminal Tower in Downtown Cleveland. 

Kareem Henton, left, and Anthony Body, right, make up the Bail Project's team in Cleveland.
Credit Nick Castele / Ideastream
Kareem Henton, left, and Anthony Body, right, make up the Bail Project's team in Cleveland.

The project can cover up to a $5,000 surety bond, which requires all the money up front. They’ll also pay up to a $10,000, 10% bond, which only requires $1,000 down. On average, the project pays $869 per case, according to Henton and Body. 

When the cases are over, the project gets the money back to use again for a new defendant. Overall, the Bail Project in Cleveland has been on the hook for $1 million in bonds, Henton said.

The project doesn’t just bail people out of jail. Henton said he tries to sign defendants up for other services they might need.

“A person has a brush with the criminal justice system,” he said. “Well, it might have something to do with the fact that they’re homeless. Well, if we help them with their homelessness, then they’re perhaps not going to wind up back in here.”

The project largely bails out defendants charged with felonies in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. The public defender’s office often tips Henton and Body off when people who need assistance.

Body said he and Henton have even received calls from inside the jail. 

“They get to having conversations within the jail,” Body said. “We’ll receive collect calls, prepaid calls, with folks saying my name’s such-and-such, my bond is only $5,000, can you come interview me?”

If Henton and Body had their way, the Bail Project probably wouldn’t exist at all. Both want local governments to end the cash bail system.

Critics of bail projects say more consideration should be given to victims and the possibility that a defendant could commit a crime while out on bail.

But the court has already weighed a person’s risk to the community in setting a bond amount in the first place, Body said.

An Ohio Supreme Court panel in 2019 recommended that courts move away from cash bail and “consider all alternatives to pretrial detention.” It cited a Buckeye Institute study that found a day in jail costs about 13 times as much as supervised release.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said he sees the project’s work as a positive. If a defendant did threaten victims or witnesses, he said, his office would voice concerns to the court.

“But those cases are few and far between,” O’Malley said. “And generally, I think what we see is, more often than not, that people can’t post bond, and as a result of not being able to post bond, we have additional people sitting in the county jail.”

Defendants have come back to the Justice Center for their court dates 95% of the time, according to the Bail Project’s spokesman. If the project faced any skepticism when it started, that record has won it respect, according to Cuyahoga County Public Defender Mark Stanton.

“The individuals who are receiving the bonds because of the Bail Project’s interaction are appearing,” Stanton said. “They’re not committing crimes, and they’re appearing at a very high rate.”

The Bail Project currently operates in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Arkansas, Louisville, Tulsa, Detroit, Augusta, Baton Rouge, Chicago, St. Louis, San Diego, St. Charles, Spokane and the Bronx.

While the Bail Project has tried to help more defendants get out of jail, court leaders are also taking steps to put fewer people behind bars while awaiting trial in the first place.

Cleveland Municipal Court has a new pretrial services program that allows more defendants to await trial outside of jail on court supervision. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court has also encouraged more no-cash personal bonds.

Stanton remains skeptical this change of attitude is permanent. Inmate deaths are what injected urgency into bail reform talks here, he said. 

“We have had nine dead bodies in Cuyahoga County Jail in the last year and a half,” he said. “And that, more than any other reason, drove this alleged reversal of a bond policy. But there’s still far too many people that have cash bonds attached to their cases.”