View from the bench: Bail reform

The Cleveland Heights Municipal Court is making dramatic changes to its bond schedule based on recommendations from a task force created by the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. The new schedule gives me more discretion in setting cash bail, putting fewer non-violent defendants in jail while awaiting trial. It's fairer and saves taxpayers money.

A person arrested will now be released on personal bond (a signed promise they will show up in court) unless charged with certain offenses, or where the prosecutor or police request a bond. In cases where a personal bond may not be appropriate—such as felonies, domestic violence charges, sexually-oriented offenses, and offenses involving a deadly weapon—the accused is brought before me as soon as possible, generally the day of their arrest. This allows me to impose secured money bail where necessary, and more nuanced non-monetary conditions such as GPS monitoring, probation check-ins, drug testing, firearms bans, or orders against contact with the alleged victim.

The purposes of a bond are to make sure the accused shows up for court, and to protect the public from harm. This approach should accomplish that in a more just manner.

The Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure require courts to establish a bond schedule covering all misdemeanors. Most courts use a cash bail schedule tied to the level of offense. It doesn’t allow much flexibility. Someone charged with displaying a suspended license and someone charged with assault, both first-degree misdemeanors, are given the same money bond. Mental health or substance abuse issues are not a consideration. Wealthy defendants can post bond, but poor people are stuck in jail. None of these scenarios justly accomplish the purpose of a bond.

According to a Pretrial Justice Institute report, pretrial detention costs U.S. taxpayers more than $38 million a day. In addition, studies have shown that as few as three days in jail can make detainees more likely to offend in the future, probably because detention disrupts stabilizing factors like employment and housing. This is during the pretrial stage when a person is innocent until proven guilty. Nearly all the stakeholders in our justice system recognize that something must be done. 

The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio recently convened a task force to examine the bail system. It came back with nine recommendations, including using tested tools to determine the risk level of a defendant, and training for judges and court personnel (www.sconet.state.oh.us/Publications/bailSys/report.pdf).

The Supreme Court has not yet implemented the recommendations, but as a judge in a single-judge jurisdiction, I can make changes now.  I require that an attorney is present for the defendant’s initial appearance for all felonies. I also formed a team of our city’s justice system partners to attend a pretrial justice summit.  

While our Court has not yet adopted a formal risk assessment tool due to lack of funding, with the information the police and my probation department provide to me, I am able to make a reasonable decision on the amount of bond and conditions. Finally, when available and appropriate, we may provide pretrial services, including treatment for drug and mental health problems.

These improvements help ensure that the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court has an effective, just pretrial system that keeps us safe and improves the likelihood that the accused appear in court.

J.J. Costello

J.J. Costello is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court.

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Volume 12, Issue 11, Posted 10:09 AM, 11.01.2019