Bail Reform: Lawmakers can learn from Ohio’s proposals

West Virginia lawmakers are joined by those in approximately 40 other states this year in jumping on the criminal justice/bail reform bandwagon. It is this year’s hot legislative item nationwide, which should give you a little insight into how politics works in our country.

But here in the Mountain State, we have the benefit of seeing how some of those other states’ efforts are playing out, before we dive in ourselves.

On one end of the spectrum, we have New York state, which has put in place a list of misdemeanors and non-violent crimes for which the state’s judges MUST grant automatic release rather than seeking cash bail. Judges in New York are also forbidden from considering a defendant’s past record.

According to law enforcement in that state, the elimination of judges’ discretion has become a public safety nightmare, especially because lawmakers there also dangerously expanded the definition of a non-violent crime.

On the other hand, Ohio’s supreme court commissioned a task force to look at the Buckeye State’s bail system. That task force recommended adoption of tools to measure an offenders’ suitability for being released after an arrest. Similar tools are already in use in 70 courts in Ohio.

“It is one more tool in the judge’s toolbox in terms of information in helping the judge make the decision,” said Judge Mary Katherine Huffman, a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge and the chairwoman of the task force. “It does not make the decision for the judge.”

Bizarrely, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected its task force’s recommendation, and instead sent another recommendation to lawmakers, that judges set bail at the lowest amount possible that ensures a defendant will return to court but without imposing a financial burden on the offender.

As some West Virginia lawmakers pointed out ahead of this year’s legislative session, most people being held in jails right now have yet to be convicted of a crime. Some people are locked up on a relatively minor charge because they cannot afford bail; and judges (everywhere) have to be frequently reminded to avoid imposing excessive fines, fees or bail simply to raise money. It’s a real problem.

But there are examples popping up all over the country from which West Virginia can learn, as it tries to tackle the matter. Let’s avoid the debacle in New York state and glean what we can from the task force recommendations in Ohio while we make that happen.