Bail reform hinges on rule change pending before Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court is considering changing the state’s rules for setting bail in criminal cases, which could have a big impact on the liberty of thousands of Ohioans and on how much taxpayers pay for jail expenses.

The rule change could affect the fates of roughly 11,000 people on any given day in Ohio who are awaiting their day in court. The bail-bond industry is squaring off against civil-liberties groups over the issue.

The purpose of bail – conditions set for release from jail before trial — is to protect the public from harm and ensure a defendant shows up for court. In Ohio, financial conditions, such as cash or a bond, are often ordered for someone to be released pre-trial.

Bail rules can affect how much taxpayers shell out for jails. Across the state, it costs $728,816 a day on average to keep 11,000 inmates in jail while they await trial, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission analysis. That adds up to $266 million a year.

Critics say under the current system, wealthy defendants pay the bond fees and go home to await trail, while poor defendants either stay behind bars or plead guilty so they have a chance to be freed.

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The Commission on the Rules of Practice and Procedure in Ohio Courts received more than 50 comments on proposed changes to Criminal Rule 46, which covers bail, bond and pre-trial release in criminal cases.

The Supreme Court is considering changing the rule so that judges must release defendants on the least restrictive conditions, money bail is only applied for those at risk of being no-shows for court appearances, and financial conditions should be the least costly to the defendant.

The rules have the power of law, unless a new law is passed that conflicts with and supercedes them.

Criminal justice reform advocates for several years have been pushing state lawmakers to change how Ohio judges set bail. Bondsmen, meanwhile, have pushed against the proposed changes.

Jon Handler of the Ohio Professional Bail Association opposes the changes, calling them “wholly unnecessary at this time, overly complicated and will harm more than help.”

Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck’s office opposes changing Rule 46 so that money bail is based solely on the risk that a defendant won’t show up for court.

Support for reform is coming from the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank, the Ohio State Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, a civil liberties advocacy group.

ACLU of Ohio Advocacy Counsel Clair Chevrier said the organization applauds the goals but wants judges to be required to document how they apply the new rule.

Related: Report calls for overhaul of Ohio's bail system

The process for changing Rule 46 is laid out in the Ohio Constitution.

The court is expected to wade through the public comments and decide what changes to file with the Ohio General Assembly by Jan. 15. Then the Legislature may open it for public comment and send that feedback to the court for a second review. The court then sends it back to the General Assembly, which can reject the changes or let them take effect July 1.

“It’s a weird process by which it gets bounced back and forth,” said Chevrier.

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