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Katie Greer | December 14, 2017
Ohioans have been shelling out millions with no guarantee of an ROI for public safety. That’s the digest on the state’s ineffective use of money bail, according to a report recently released by the The Buckeye Institute.
The report comes out as Ohio lawmakers consider bail reform. The pending legislation, championed by two Republican representatives, strives to strengthen public safety by requiring courts to use risk assessments when setting bail. As I’ve written before, the purpose of pre-trial detention is to protect the public from people who are deemed dangerous and to ensure that those who prove unlikely to show up for trial are appropriately detained. However, without considering someone’s risk prior to release—as is the case in Ohio and other states—innocent people can be placed in danger when a defendant’s only key to freedom is a thick wallet. For example, in 2015 a man named Dragan Sekulic was assigned a $100,000 bond after he attempted to kill his ex-wife. Because he was could afford the bond, he was released. In that short waiting period, he then “finished what he started”: he shot and killed his ex-wife. A risk assessment could have kept Sekulic locked up while he awaited trial—likely meaning his ex-wife would still be alive.
Determining which defendants must be detained and which can be released while they await trial must be based on more than their ability to pay. The ramifications are two-fold. There’s tragic cases such as Sekulic’s, where innocent people are murdered. Then, there’s countless cases where defendants are accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes and are locked up – simply because they couldn’t afford to pay bail.
One of the most outrageous cases of the year might belong to Markcus Brown. Brown was kicked off of a bus for violating the transit authority’s dress code. When police asked for his identification, Brown did not comply and was detained. He could not afford to pay the $150 bond, so he sat in jail for nine days. As a fiscally-minded person, this made me wonder what it costs to lock someone up in Ohio. The answer is between $101-$300, according to a regional jail assessment from Cuyahoga County. So, on the low end, Ohioans paid at least $909 to detain Markcus Brown simply because he couldn’t afford to pay his $150 bond. Taxpayers should have been spared the burden of his jail costs considering Brown did not pose a threat to the community. In fact, all court costs could have been spared given that a low-level offense such as violating a dress code should not be treated as a criminal act, and jailing someone for that act is an expensive over-reaction at best. Instead, some form of pre-arrest diversion—such as a civil citation—might be more appropriate here. It’s a safe way to avoid needless arrests and costly criminal proceedings, allowing officers and courts to focus their time and resources on more severe cases.
Money bail as a one-size-fits all solution is not entirely effective. People are not less of a threat because they can afford bail, and people do not become a threat simply because they cannot afford bail. For that reason, The Buckeye Institute recommends that courts “take a more individualized view of each case to deny bail for the truly dangerous,” and to “consider a more scientific approach to pretrial detention.” Courts should utilize risk assessments not only to save tax dollars, but also to achieve a better ROI for public safety. In Luca County, Ohio, recidivism dropped from 20 to 10 percent after utilizing risk assessments—meaning that crime is decreasing alongside pretrial jail populations. This is not rocket science: When public safety can increase – at a lower cost to taxpayers – lawmakers should act. In this case, the action is to shift from a system that is cash-focused to a system that is public-safety focused. Risk assessments are more effective than cash bail alone.