Ohio chief justice wants major changes to state’s bail, criminal justice system

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who forcefully campaigned against Issue 1 last fall, is calling for major changes to the state criminal justice system that she says will be a better deal for taxpayers and help those caught up in addiction.

O’Connor, a Republican, said on Tuesday that she wants Ohio to expand the in lieu of conviction program that allows offenders to complete drug treatment instead of facing a criminal conviction. And she wants to make it easier for more people with certain low-level felony criminal convictions to seal their records, which would make it easier for them to land a job.

“The goal here is to get Ohioans not only on the road to recovery but to keep them on the path by being contributing citizens. That makes these proposals good for everyone, including the taxpayers. And that is an extremely important facet that cannot be ignored by any of the branches of government,” O’Connor said at a forum organized by the Associated Press.

Giving people chance to seal criminal records

O’Connor said she would like Ohioans to be able to seal their records one-year after serving their sentences, instead of waiting three years, and expand it so more are eligible to do so.

O’Connor campaigned statewide against Issue 1 last fall, warning that it would devastate drug courts that use a carrot-and-stick to encourage those facing prison time to opt for drug treatment. The issue failed by a 2:1 margin.

Now Ohio needs to discuss how to reform criminal sentencing laws and address drug addiction, she said.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a former county prosecutor, said “I support those in broad concept. The challenge is always in the details.”

What state lawmakers may do

At the same forum, legislative leaders expressed interest in criminal justice reforms for those who commit non-violent crimes due to their drug addictions.

Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said “We would like to see those people get the treatment that they need to turn their lives around. We would like to see those people get a hand up and try to become productive members of society again and charging them with felonies is probably not the right way to go.”

House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, said she wants to see a broader look at why the prison population is disproportionately African-American and poor. There are serious racial inequities in arrest rates, charges and sentences, she said.

“Just the mere fact of having adequate representation can mean the difference between probation and a 20-year prison sentence and while that might seem like a very stark difference it is very real,” Sykes said.

Chief justice critical of cash bail system

A former county prosecutor, O’Connor also called for dramatic changes in the way courts set bail for those facing criminal charges. Bail is intended to protect the public from harm and ensure a defendant shows up for court.

Generally, Ohio courts rely on a cash system that ties the amount to the criminal charge. O’Connor, the Buckeye Institute, the ACLU of Ohio and others want to shift away from cash bail in favor of assessing the risk each defendant poses that they won’t show for court or will harm the public.

“Cash bail affects the poor in ways that go far beyond depravation of liberty,” said O’Connor, who leads a national courts group focused on fines, fees and bail reform. “If they cannot make bail, they sit in jail. The foundations of their world fall apart. They lose their jobs, they miss a rent payment or a car payment and that’s the end of that possession. They can go from living paycheck to paycheck to having no paycheck. This kind of pressure can lead them to make plea deals they shouldn’t be making if they are not guilty of the crime they are charged with.”

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