the Beacon Journal editorial board

With jails bulging due to the opiate epidemic, county-level officials across the state are calling for the legislature and the Ohio Supreme Court to fix a bail system that is contributing heavily to the overcrowding problem. Both the County Commissioners’ Association of Ohio and the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association want to reduce jail populations through the adoption of a revamped system that more accurately assesses the risks that defendants pose to the public.

The organizations rightly argue that the ability to make even a modest bail is beyond the reach for many defendants, leading to county jails filled with poor defendants who pose no real risk to the public. The numbers are staggering. According to the county commissioners’ association, more than 60 percent of the average daily jail population in the state is made up of individuals who are not yet sentenced and unable to post bond. That’s the case in Summit County, although the number has reached 80 percent when those yet to appear before a judge are included.

What the statewide groups are aiming to reduce sharply is the common practice of courts holding to a bond schedule for various offenses. While meant to reflect broadly the potential risk to public safety, the method results in incarceration based mainly on an inability to pay. Many of those in jail are nonviolent offenders with chronic drug and alcohol problems.

The county commissioners and sheriffs also want to modify certain nonviolent criminal offenses to eliminate jail sanctions. For example, commissioners would like to reclassify most traffic offenses.

Fortunately, Summit County’s criminal justice system is ahead of the curve with the adoption in 2006 of a more sophisticated pre-trial risk assessment program that takes into account a range of factors, among them violent criminal record, history of failing to appear in court and past employment. There is no bail schedule.

Summit was the first county in Ohio to adopt such reforms, which were later implemented in Lucas County. Aided by a federal grant, municipal courts in Summit now are looking at dropping bail for non-violent, low-level felons.

Leaders in Cuyahoga County are considering a risk assessment strategy, and the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission also is looking at mandating risk assessment and reducing the role of bail bonds. A final report is expected in March. In doing so, Ohio joins some 40 other states that are reviewing the use of bail bonds. A statewide approach is viewed as preferable, bringing uniformity to the legal system.

Statewide bail reform promises significant savings to cash-strapped county governments. The maximum cost to monitor a defendant before trial is $5.02 a day in Summit County, compared to $133 a day for staying in the jail.

Savings could free money to get nonviolent offenders with drug and alcohol problems the opportunity for counseling and treatment that jails are not well equipped to provide. That would help in the long run by reducing the risk of another offense.

So far, the state has provided just modest aid to help local officials cope with the opiate crisis. Following through on the recommendations from county commissioners and county sheriffs for bail reform and other measures would make a significant contribution.