A report analyzing Ohio’s bail and pretrial services published last week recommended implementing several measures to improve the fairness and efficiency of Ohio’s various court systems.
In line with similar studies across the U.S., the report, published by a special committee of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, found that “those with money, notwithstanding their danger to the community, can purchase their freedom while poor defendants remain in jail pending trial.”
One solution offered in the report was a risk assessment tool to help courts differentiate decisions based on each defendant’s “risk for failure to appear or the risk to public safety.”
Sara Andrews, director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission, said this is an important aspect of determining how to handle defendants.
“Without thinking about those risk factors, it didn’t matter if you were high risk or low risk; if you had money you could get out,” Andrews said. “What we’re trying to move toward is a more individualized consideration of each defendant.”
Adjusting pretrial services is an important part in improving judicial processes, said Union County prosecuting attorney David Phillips, who sat on the committee that created the report.
He said in addition to a judge’s and a prosecutor’s judgement, a risk assessment tool could be an objective, empirical way to help identify two main risk factors: the chances a defendant will miss their next court hearing, or more importantly, the chances a defendant will reoffend.
“When someone’s arrested… they’re probably guilty of the crime,” Phillips said. “People in this country have a right to bail. The question is under what circumstances.”
Besides the risk assessment tool, potential changes could include expanding pretrial services into areas like counseling and drug rehabilitation, Andrews said. This would cost money, but the additional expenses would be balanced by having fewer people in jail, she said.
“These are folks that are presumed innocent at this point … and you don’t want to keep people in jail if you can release them,” Andrews said, although also acknowledging that money in some circumstances might be the only way to insure people reappear or don’t commit another crime.
Implementing such changes are important and could help courts monitor defendants before their trials, Phillips said, but understanding how effective these practices are will be another essential part in furthering the recommendations in the report.
“There has to be a data collection system set up because we have to understand are the things we’re doing effective. If not then there needs to be changes,” Phillips said.
The report identified a few local judicial systems that have implemented risk assessment tools and expanded pretrial services to various extents, such as in Lucas County, and more recently in Stark County and in the Cleveland Municipal Court.
Kentucky and Washington D.C. — the “gold standard of pretrial services” — have both incorporated similar practices into their systems at a wider scale, Andrews said.
Going forward, the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission will vote to adopt the report in June, and is currently accepting public comment. Andrews said committee members are also looking to work with the General Assembly and the Ohio Supreme Court to potentially change statewide statutes and rules.
“As a criminal prosecutor, we are concerned about the safety of the community,” Phillips said. “They need to do the time, but they need to be convicted first.”