Bail reform plans clash in Ohio House

Rival bail reform measures were before an Ohio House committee on Wednesday, but only one has so far been sent on for a vote by the full House.

Both have companion measures in the Ohio Senate which saw recent hearings, but neither appears close to a Senate committee vote.

According to the ACLU of Ohio, about 12,000 people on any given day are behind bars in Ohio without having been sentenced. That’s about 60% of the people in jail and the ACLU says those people are held primarily because they can’t afford bail. Reform advocates denounce the current bail system as discriminating against people on the basis of wealth, since a wealthy person charged with the same offense as a poor person could get out of jail while the poor person could not.

State Reps. David Leland, D-Columbus, and Brett Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, introduced House Bill 315 in May 2021, and it had its second hearing Wednesday in the House Criminal Justice Committee.

Leland said the bill seeks to end the disparity in treating people caused by the cash bail process. Basing bail on someone’s ability to pay is a “critical part” of reform, he said.

Leland moved to substantially amend his bill based on comments from many interested parties. The changes expand the time allowed for pretrial and release decisions, and alter the formula for calculating bail, he said.

“The maximum is still 25% of somebody’s monthly income, but there is also a $200 floor,” Leland said. The calculation would also allow deduction of some costs, such as education and work expenses, from the person’s income before the 25% maximum is determined, he said.

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The most important provision is a “massive expansion” of the rules for pretrial detention, Leland said. Wednesday’s amendment adds more than 50 crimes to the list of those for which a judge would need to determine the risk that releasing a prisoner would pose to others, he said.

“As opposed to the illusion of safety that a bond provides … this expansion of pretrial detention is going to ensure the court has the ability and the extra tools to make sure the people who should be behind bars remain behind bars,” Leland said.

A year ago state Sens. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, and Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, introduced Senate Bill 182 as a companion to Leland’s HB 315. The Senate version had a third hearing April 5 in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Leland said McColley and Huffman are “on board” with the changes made Wednesday to HB 315.

Added late to Wednesday’s agenda were two measures sponsored by state Reps. Jeff LaRe, R-Violet Twp., and D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron: House Joint Resolution 2 and House Bill 607. Both were introduced in March, hurried through four committee hearings, and passed the House Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday.

The resolution seeks to place an initiative on the November 8 ballot that would write new requirements for setting bail into the Ohio Constitution.

The state constitution currently says anyone can be bailed by “sufficient sureties,” unless they’re charged with a capital offense or felony when “proof is evident or the presumption great,” and if their release poses a risk to the community. The proposed amendment would remove that language, instead saying only that in setting bail courts must consider public safety, the person’s criminal record, the likelihood they would flee, and seriousness of their offense.

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Swearingen amended the resolution Wednesday to add “any factor that the General Assembly may describe” to those conditions. The resolution passed with no further discussion.

State Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Huron, has introduced a companion to HJR 2. Senate Joint Resolution 5 had its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1.

House Bill 607, which also passed the House committee Wednesday without further discussion, echoes the language of the proposed constitutional amendment.

“In all cases, bail must be fixed with consideration of the seriousness of the offense charged, the previous criminal record of the defendant, and the probability of the defendant appearing at the trial of the case,” says an analysis from the state Legislative Research Commission. “The bill expands these factors to require that bail must be fixed with consideration of all relevant information, including the risk to public safety.”

The ACLU of Ohio endorses HB 315 and urges rejection of HJR 2 and HB 607, describing them respectively as “positive and negative proposals” for bail reform.

The group says HB 315 and its companion SB 182 have broad bipartisan support.

These companion bills rightly focus on key provisions to ensure people don’t languish in jail simply because they can’t afford their cash bail while centering and prioritizing public safety,” an ACLU news release says.

By contrast, HJR 2 and SJR 5 – and by extension HB 607 – would make things worse, the group says.